Why first words don’t come first


Parents love first words.  This milestone is one of the most exciting because all of a sudden your baby has become a real little person.  It is the icing on the cake when the first word is also your name.  “Dada” (heart melts).  As speech pathologists, we are often asked when should my child say their first words?  

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Well the short answer is at about their first birthday but what many of us don’t realise is that there is a set of skills known as ‘pre-language’ that develop well before they are of ‘speaking age’.  In fact, there’s a lot you can be ‘looking’ for when you are busy ‘listening’ for first words.  Here are our top 3 ‘look fors’ before first words:

1. Do they imitate?

      1. A first word is only considered a first word when your child says it spontaneously and with meaning attached. Correct? Therefore it is important to remember that a stepping stone to achieving this skill is the ability to imitate actions, noises, sounds or words. It might be non-verbally to begin with; something simple like banging the table with their hand. Copy them and they will copy you.

    “It is within these back and forth interactions that the foundation of all a child’s future conversations is built.” (Why Interaction Comes Before Language, Hanen)


    PARENT TIP: There is nothing a baby finds more amusing or engaging than you copying them plus you’re helping them learn language. Win-Win!

    2. Are they babbling?

        1. Speech development begins well before first words.  Remember when your baby started making noises – crying, cooing, blowing a raspberry or squealing.  These are all early communication milestones that are good signs.

    The next step after vocalisations is a term known as ‘babbling’ (v: uttering articulate sounds but not yet producing any recognizable words).

        1. There are three types of babbling to look for are: canonical or reduplicated babbling which is repetition of the same syllables (e.g., da da da da); variegated babbling contains mixes of consonant and vowel combinations (e.g., ka da by ba mi doy doy); and conversational babbling which resembles the sounds, stress and intonation of their native language but it is still all jargon.

    PARENT TIP: Say it as if they would, if they could. This can be quite entertaining interpreting what you think they are saying!

      1. 3. Do they use gestures?

        1. Think waving, pointing and blowing a kiss. These are the ‘non-verbal’ first words that are such an important part of communication development.

          In fact, research shows that signing with your baby can greatly improve their speech and language skills.

        2. If you are keen to use sign with your baby (and no they do not need to be hearing impaired), check out the Auslan website and search some key words like: finished, more, eat.

      PARENT TIP: Give them a chance to gesture by WAITING…it can feel like forever but it is worth the wait!


As Speech Pathologists, we are so passionate about supporting families and educators to enrich children’s communication and pre-literacy skills and early intervention is the key. 

Our Little Birdie Book Memberships and gift boxes maximise on a small window of time to develop language well beyond their first words!

Thanks for hearing our call.

Your Little Birdies in language and literacy, Tania and Janice