Your Child’s Speech and Language: The First Word

As I was writing up my post on development for months 12-18 I realized that there is so much great information about the first word, that I needed to dedicate an entire post to them! Yes…I am going to use hundreds of words to talk all about your child’s first. ;)

What is a Word, Anyway?

I often hear people say that their child’s first was mama or dada. And that it was at 6 months of age. But is this mama or dada a real word? At 6 months? Probably not . At 10 months? Maybe. In fact, at my daughter’s one year check up the nurse asked if she was calling me mama. I said “No. She babbles mama but she does not call me mama.” The nurse gave me a sideways look and said with concern”Realllllllllllly?” That’s when I let her know what I do for a living and that this is normal. She still didn’t look convinced ;)

So what exactly is a real word? Why did I not consider my daughter’s babbling “mama” as a word? For a “word” to be a real word it must fit the following two criteria:

  1. The word must sound somewhat like the real, adult version of the word. We don’t expect perfection: Approximations (like part of the word) count. But if a child said “baboo” most likely that would not be a word referring to a cat (unless of course, the cat’s name is Baboo). It is also important to remember that children are not born being able to produce all the speech sounds of their language and it is a process that happens over years, so the words can have errors yet still sound like the real, adult word. For example, a toddler may say “Ta” or “tat”  or “ca” or “cak” for cat and those all could be considered a word as long as it also meets the next criteria.
  2. To be a real word the word must also be used consistently in the presence of the object with intent and meaning. For example, a six month old saying dadadada while he is playing with his toys while daddy is at work is likely not a true word. A 10 month old who says “dadada” when daddy walks in the door and says it while looking at daddy (showing meaning and intent) and does it consistently (meaning many different times) is most likely a real word.

So, back to my own daughter at her 12 month check up. Yes, E said mamamama but not to refer to me. Not to request me. In fact, she did not use “mama” like that until she was 18 months old. And her speech and language development was well within the normal range. However she did say “dada” consistently and with intent to refer to her daddy somewhere around 13-14 months.

So what was my daughter’s first word?

“NO” of course.

And my son’s was “bye bye.”

What Kind of Words Will My Child Say First?

The first words tend to be nouns. In fact, around 65%  of children’s first words will be nouns (person, place, thing). So mama or dada can be a child’s first word but it doesn’t have to be! The other 35% is made up of action words, modifiers (colors, descriptions), or social words like hi, no, or bye bye (like both of my children!)  A small amount of the first words are made up of other functional words like where or what. One of my son’s first words (after bye-bye) was “what’s that?”

When Should I Expect the First Word?

Remember when I said earlier that the 6 month old saying “mamamama” is most likely not really saying mama? The typical range of “normal” for the first word is between 8-16 months. My daughter said her first real word around a year where as my son’s first word was at 9.5 months. Interestingly, it was my daughter who’s speech grew quickly from her first word where as my son’s did not. The age of the first word has no correlation with intelligence so don’t worry of your child is on the end of the “normal” range.

However…between 12 and 15 months we do want to see your child communicating even if it is not with words. We want him pointing, gesturing, making eye contact, smiling, laughing, protesting (yes, protesting!) and so on. We want him imitating gross motor movements (like stomping feet) and responding to his name. Check my Red Flags section for more information. Regardless of the amount of words during this time frame…zero to 100…we need your little one meeting all these other milestones.

Now you know what MY children’s first words are. What about yours? I want to hear!

Also, be sure to head over to Love, Play, Learn and check out my gust post today: 5 Things You Need to Know about Your Toddler’s Speech & Language Development. It’s a goody!

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References
Darley, F., & Wintz , H. (1961). Age of the first words:Review of the research. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 26, 271-290

McLaughlin, S. (1998). Introduction to language development.  San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group, INC.

DISCLAIMER: There is a wide range of “normal” when it comes to children’s development. The age ranges used in this series are only estimates. Please remember that this information is for educational purposes only and in no way replaces the assessment by a qualified medical professional. If you feel your child has delays in his/her communication skills, please speak to your pediatrician or locate a speech pathologist in your area for an assessment. Be sure to read the full TERMS OF USE on this site for more info. For tips on how to find an SLP in your area read HERE.

 

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About Katie

Katie is a licensed, credentialed and certified pediatric speech-language pathologist and mom to three (5, 3 and 9 months). Her passion about educating, inspiring and empowering parents of children with all abilities led her to start her blog Playing With Words 365 where she shares information about speech and language development, therapy ideas and tips, intervention strategies and a little about her family life too. Katie has been working in the field of speech pathology for 9 years and is certified in The Hanen Centre’s It Takes Two to Talk ® and Target Word ® programs and holds a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). In addition to blogging and being a mommy, Katie works part time in her small private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. My oldest’s first word was Mom. My 8 month old recently started saying “ball” and it is stinkin’ adorable!!

  2. My son’s first word was BIRD said absolutely perfectly at 8 months in the right context and his language grew and grew from there. My Daughter at 8 months started pointing and saying in a garbeled way “What’s that” she’s now 18 months and still does it when ever she wants to know something new so I guess her first word was “What’s that!” Neither had Mama in the vocabularly till much later – J my son missed out on Mama and I was called Girl for a while until just around 2 he finally came out with Mummy. My Daughter 18 months now can’t say Mama/Mummy instead I get called Nameeeeeeeee
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    • Cerys Everett (my 21 month old) said “what’s that?” early on as well! “Whats dat?” and “Dat” were common around here. LOVE hearing about these first words!

  3. supermansmomma says:

    Our son’s first word was ‘Down’! As in ‘I want down from the table’ & ‘I dropped it and it fell down’. We used baby sign with him and all of his first words were also signs he used. I found that interesting.

    • Down is a great one! One of my daughters first words (after NO) was “up”. Ironically with my daughter she chose to sign the signs and say words she didn’t know signs for. For example, she signed “more” FOREVER and would NOT say it. I love how each child is so different!

  4. Great post! I’m glad I’m not the only one who has received that “look” from a nurse! ;) My youngest’s first word was “no” as well, quickly followed by “dada” (intentional) and “dit down”…”mama” FINALLY started popping up (intentionally) around 20 months. He just didn’t see a need to say it, especially with his older brothers saying it all the time for him!

    • Ha ha Stefani..I wonder how many of us have gotten “the look”? ;) Being a parent has also really helped me bring my knowledge of speech and language development to light. I’ve learned a LOT from my own children of what is “normal” and what isn’t.

  5. I used some basic signs with my son (more, all done, milk, eat) starting around 7 months. His first word/frozen phrase was “All done” around 12 months. It worked well because it helped him communicate in different situations such as eating, playing, bath, etc.

  6. My son could speak eloquently (for a baby) at 6 months. Sentences-correctly used and understandable to most anyone who could hear baby pitch voices. By a year he had a huge wealth of words (oddly, NEVER mama–I was always around, what was the point? I think was his thought process) It wasn’t until he finally had him tested (in high school) for learning disabilities that we learned that his high level of early speech actually was a precursor/warning sign of his learning challenges.

    Next child: not a single “real” word until 3 days before her 2-year-old check up. I had been after her doctor to check her hearing,etc because she really would just cry, grunt, and generally have her brother talk for her. Her first word? “Look Joseph! Funny horsey eating daddy’s shirt” (unless you count the mimic of “You’ve got mail” on AOL or “french toast outfit” when offering her choices in desperate attempts to get her to talk.) She came home from that outing to the pumpkin patch chattering in full sentences and didn’t stop talking until she was a teenager. Notable because she had had a full on temper tantrum right before going out because I offered juice or milk and she had refused to point and just screamed and melted down into kicking puddle on the kitchen floor.

    Youngest child: incredibly typical progression of babble into words. Granted she had a few oddly large words early on–but all my children did.
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  7. My oldest daughter’s first word was diaper. I was shocked since she was only 9 months old. I wasn’t going to count it unless she said it again. Sure enough, she repeated it several times while being changed. She was a very early talker. My other daughter’s first word was probably ball or bath. Yet she never quite got the ending sound in there, but you knew exactly what she was referring to.

  8. I never counted mama or dada since our pediatrician always wanted to know words other then those, Surprisingly all three of our kids first two words were cat and balloon. The oldest said key and boon, the second said boo first and then cat, and the third said ca and ba (for ball or balloon).

  9. dreamyowl says:

    Both of my babies said the same first word on the same day. Our wonderful SLP was working with my 23m old son and blowing bubbles with him and my 11m old daughter. She said “buh-buh!” Gleefully over and over to get more bubbles, and then her big brother copied her and said “bubble” clearly! It was so exciting for us!

  10. My oldest daughters first word was “Mama” quickly followed by “dada”, “dog”, and “duck”. My youngest daughters first word was “that” and she also loves to say “dada” and “dog dog” No Mama yet :o(

    • Ann my son is 21 months and just these last couple weeks REALLY started using Mama to call me :) He also used “that” fairly early.

  11. So, my son was early (6 months). I was VERY skeptical of his develoment specialist and Pediatrician telling me these were real words. I’ve been around a LOT of babies, and I chalked it up to me being around him all day and over interpreting his speech skills. He was 6 months old when he started calling for Mama when he was upset, scared or hurt. I didn’t think much of this until he called Mama, and my husband picked him up and he cried harder for Mama, and stopped when I took him. He also says Baba (well, yells really) when he wants a bottle. He will not stop yelling Baba until we get him one, or feed him his food. He said Dada second, when he got used to my husband being home after deployment when my husband walked in the door, or he would crawl over to my husband and slap his knees and say Dada to get attention and played with. His development has always been ahead by about 2 months and I never thought about it. My concern now, is that he is going to have Dyslexia. My husband has it, as well as my husbands dad and so on. One of the key factors they tell you to look for is advanced development and language skills early on, but they wont be able to test for it until he is actually in school.. so, what is a mom to do? :(

    • Hi Whitney. Wow 6 months is very early for words! But it does happen once in a while. I am no expert in Dyslexia and have not heard that early speech development can be a sign. However all you can do is love on him and give him lots of learning opportunities, read him lots of books, and talk to him a lot :) Good luck to you!

  12. Does “uh-oh” count as a word? My 12mo has been saying that for a couple of months now when she sees something fall on the floor or if something stops. (My husband thinks it’s too negative and is encouraging her to say ‘yay’…) But she uses it with intent and meaning, consistently.

  13. My daughter has been saying “kitty” everytime one of the cats walks in the room for about 2 months now. She is almost 9 months old. My older son (age 2) is deaf and has bilateral cochlear implants. I think the fact that she is attending speech therapy with him 2-3 times a week and having the extra language activities that we do at our house daily have been a factor in her early language development. She imitates sounds at therapy and understands a lot of words.

  14. My oldest son’s first word was all done, “ah Dee” he would say while signing it after meals at 7 months. Soon after he began saying hi as well. My now 13 month old just started saying his first word, hi, and when he wasn’t speaking by 9 months I was freaking out. The pediatrician had to assure me that older brother was the exception not the rule.

    • YES! So true. The average first word is actually around a year….but it is hard as a parent to not compare your kids!

  15. My first sons was “baby” and “cheese” i guess because we always called him baby. And one day I was getting cheese out of the fridge and telling him and he just copied me and it stuck. and my younger sons was “more” as in more food, he’s a little piggy!

  16. My son’s first word was “Dog” although he says “Gog” and I LOVE hearing it!

  17. My oldest talked very early and by 15 months (when baby 2 was born) was speaking in sentences….he told the nurse at the hospital, “my mommy is having baby today”….baby #2 a girl I knew from about 9-12 months she was different….dr kept telling me I was comparing and that my son had just been very advanced. At 2 she started listening to me and my daughter was diagnosed with speech/language delay (which we are still dealing with at 4). Anyway, I am overly paranoid with my third child (another girl) who is 14 months….actually called EI and she doesn’t qualify but is “slightly” behind. Honestly she seems way different than my other daughter, much more social and I know her receptive language is better…. She has said mama and dada but not calling us. I think her true first word (that she has used more than once or twice) is peek a boo….well eeeaaboo to be exact.she has done it several times imitating me or when I cover my eyes and move them she will do hers and say it. Does this count as a word??

  18. My little girl’s first real word was “duck”. Her bed time story ( every night) is about a duck and one day around 8 months or so she grabbed a yellow rubber ducky ( also her favorite toy) and said “uck”…we were so thrilled and she was so excited by our cheers and giggles she repeated it continuously every time she saw the duck for days.

  19. My oldest’s (currently 31m) first word was “hot” at about 14 months. He said it every time we got in the car when we were living in Phoenix at the time. He has been very delayed and while doing speech one day with his therapist they were practicing “buh” sounds for bubble and bye bye and his sister was across the room (9m) saying “buhba, buhba.” It has helped her to participate in speech therapy with her big brother! We are happy they are both making some strides.
    I am so happy to have found your blog. You are a wealth of information. Thanks.

  20. My daughter will turn 7 months old in three days and has a bit of an obsession with standing but can’t get up on her own yet and she was lying on her play mat on her back and looked at me held out both her hands out to me lifted her head up and said “up” (and has been doing it all day now! I’m in absolute awe and I wasn’t even sure if a baby her age could talk!

  21. At about 7 months or so, my son started calling his dad ‘appa’ quite clearly(that’s the word for father in my language). But mysteriously, after a while he regressed! He is 16 months old now, and starting to relearn the word!

  22. My son’s first word was “hot”. I never thought the word hot could be so cute! He was 11 months old. He is 14 months now and says mama, this, rawr, ninny, and something that is supposed to be cockatoo-doodle-doo.

  23. Melinda Rankin says:

    Imagine my surprise waiting for my oldest son to begin to play with mama and/or dadda when he was about 6 months old, yet what I heard him say was “get it” Yep, sitting on my lap one day he threw a toy on the floor and said ‘get it’ I couldn’t believe my ears. But by the time he was 9 months old he was pointing at everything and asking “What’s that” and by a year he was speaking in full sentences. Very unusual indeed. Most of my other boys first word was dadda. Dad traveled a lot in his job so I was constantly talking to the boys about him, what he was doing and when he was coming home. My 6th son was language delayed and his younger brother #7 (by 2 years, 4 months) was speaking (and translating) for him. I learned I could have him tested and he could get speech services before he entered kindergarten. That was the first time I ever heard about Speech Therapy. Now I am an SLP. ;)

  24. I’ve been told by my parents that my first word was ‘gargoyle’. Is that weird? I used to watch the animated TV show Gargoyles a lot with my brother though.

  25. Wow you guys with early speakers! My son is 12.5 months old and he is barely now making attempts to say words! He is trying so hard to say something to the dog but it all comes back as “guhi”, “gogi” or
    “Duh..gi”…he is also supposedly calling all birds “gaga” but often can sound like “agehe” etc…the rest are hard work in attempt to yell something in baby jargon or “talk” long sentences with sounds like g, h, d and b. There is absolutely NO mama coming up anytime soon!

  26. My boy is turning 16 months this Wednesday, and he does not say a single word yet. He is generous with his smiles and laughs, he shakes hands, gives “high fives”, waves, shakes his head “no”, claps, gives kisses, points at every single vehicle and dog both in real life and in books, makes vehicle sounds, signs “more” and does a mix of “thank you” and blowing a kiss (often followed by a “muah”). He’s been babbling in what seems like full sentences for months now, but there are no real words.
    I am not terribly concerned, because a) he is being raised bilingual (one parent one language approach) and b) his father did not talk until he was 26 months old, and then started conversing in full sentences, overnight.
    Is there anything I should be looking out for, though? Anything extra we should do?
    Thanks!

  27. Your post is so informative, thank you! I was wondering … is it normal for a child to say true words and then, all of a sudden, stop saying a few of them? My son is 14 months, and about a month ago, he stopped saying “Dada” completely (and he previously would say it while looking at pictures of his dad, to his dad when in the same room etc.). He still says mama, book, cracker, banana, but “dada” is completely gone! Is there anything to worry about? Thank you!

    • Jessica, yes it can be totally normal to drop a word here and there. Now, if he starts to lose MANY words, that is a concern. Most likely he is fine! I remember my own son dropping a couple words, and then he picked them back up again very soon after.

  28. My daughter is 15 months and has about 10-11 “words” (one of them doesn’t fit the first criteria – she says “ow” for cat, but it’s consistent and she says it while pointing to our cats; we’re pretty sure she’s calling them by the noise she’s heard them make). Her first was “uh-oh” at around 13 months, which she came up with completely on her own – her dad and I both say “oops”! And she calls both of us “Dada.” :P

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