Rule number one: when it comes to a baby’s first words, it’s hard to expect anything. Some babies talk early. Some babies talk later. Some babies start talking really late and then go on to win the Nobel prize for physics.
Know that wherever your baby’s at, you’re not doing anything wrong if they’re not talking at the same age as the neighbor’s kid. (Of course, if you’re at all concerned about your baby’s development, check in with your healthcare provider.)
With that being said, the meandering path looks something like this:
When do babies start talking?
Well, like everything baby, the answer to this is just not that simple. There are no hard and fast rules here. Everyone develops at their own pace.
And the line between a baby’s first word and their relationship with language is just not too straight. In what writer Thomas Sowell dubbed The Einstein Syndrome (after a certain famous scientist who had this exact trait), some late-talking children grow up to be off-the-charts in the intelligence department.
That being said, the averages look a little something like this:
1. Rantings of a misunderstood genius.
Babies start communicating in their own unique baby language from about three months old, spouting wisdom on topics that we wish we could understand. At this point, they might also be able to understand some of the things you say—so yes, totally fine to explain complex concepts to them like paleomagnetism, political economy, and/or why people get canceled on Twitter.
2. Experimentations with sound.
This is the time when you sit with your phone out in hope that you might catch something intelligible. At six months, they might start saying things that sound like a real word.
So can a baby say mama at 6 months? Well, that’s complicated. They may be experimenting with something that sounds like mama at this point. In fact, they might say mama and not know where to stop. (This is called canonical babbling. Pop a vowel with a consonant to produce a syllable (ma). Rinse. Repeat. Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma.)
But as heartwarming as it is to hear mama on repeat, at this point, they likely are not attaching that sound to meaning.
What’s interesting is that babbling sounds pretty similar all over the world—which begs the question: do babies have a secret language? Do they know something we don’t? 😳
3. Word making.
Babies usually say their first word somewhere around their first birthday. Once they say that first word, well, there’s often no stopping them. Many other words follow hot on their heels.
First words are not only ridiculously adorable, but they also make us focus on something pretty amazing—our ability to connect sound to meaning. It’s not just that your baby is able to do the mouth gymnastics of forming a specific sound. It’s also that this sound now means something to them. And definitely to you.
4. Stringing sentences together.
By about two years old, they might be playing around with how these words sound together. Another interesting thing they might be able to do by this point is to use pronouns and plurals.
What is the most common first word for a baby?
As many a mama knows, there appear to be strong ties between first words and what a child sees around them. This 2017 study makes that link even clearer. If your baby has five rubber ducks in the bath, a couple duck stuffies, and a nearby pond with lots of ducks, then “duck” might end up being one of their first words.
So with that in mind, what can you expect from your new talker?
Stanford University has created something called Wordbank, an open database of children’s vocabulary development. From one of their studies, the most common first words in English (other than mama and dada) are:
- Baa Baa
- Yum Yum
- Woof Woof
Some other words that are popular include:
So yes, accidents, animals, vehicles, and greetings seem to feature high on the priority list. Sounds about right.
And finally, if you’re wondering, it really is a thing that they’ll never say anything when the camera’s on them.