U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Watch for Signs of Speech or Language Delay

The Basics

The first 3 years of your child’s life are the most important for learning to talk. Watch for signs that your child is learning to talk on schedule.

How do children learn to talk?
Children start learning how to talk before they start using words. They learn by watching, listening, and responding to people around them.

In the first few months, your baby listens to your voice and tries to make the same sounds you do. When you respond to your baby’s sounds, you are helping your child learn how to communicate.

Smiles, babbles, and cooing sounds are your baby's way of "talking" to you. Over time, your child will learn many more sounds and words.

How do I know my child is learning to talk on schedule?
You can watch for signs (called developmental milestones) to see if your child is learning to talk on schedule. Here are some milestones to look for:

  • By age 4 months, your baby starts to babble.
  • By age 6 months, your baby responds to sounds by making sounds.
  • By age 1, your child says a few simple words – like "mama," "dada," and "uh-oh!"
  • By age 18 months, your child says several single words.
  • By age 2, your child puts words together, like “more milk.”
  • By age 3, your child says 2 to 3 sentences at a time.

What if my child isn’t talking on schedule?
If you think your child may have a speech or language problem, talk to a doctor. The doctor may send your child to a specialist for tests.

The best way to help your child with language delays is to find and treat problems early. With early treatment, there is a good chance your child’s speech and language will improve.

Take Action!

Take Action!

You can help your child learn to talk. Try these tips with your child.

Talk to your child.
Beginning at birth, talk and sing to your child. This will help your child learn to make sounds.

  • Smile and talk to your baby when she "talks" to you with coos, gurgles, and babbles.
  • Respond to your child’s words and sounds. For example, your child might point to a banana and say “ee, ee.” You can respond by asking, “Do you want to EAT the banana?”
  • Use words as well as hand signals or signs. Using both together can help your child understand what you mean.
  • Talk to your child throughout the day. Whether you are outside or at home, name things and describe what you are doing.
  • Always respond to your child’s questions.
  • Don’t talk baby talk. Speak real words to your child.

Read to your child.
Listening to you read aloud can help your baby learn sounds. Being read to can also help children understand language and learn new words. You can start reading to your child as early as age 6 months.

Choose books with:

  • Big pictures in bright colors
  • Simple stories
  • Numbers and counting, the alphabet, shapes, or sizes
  • Rhymes

To get your child more involved, talk or sing about the pictures as you read.

  • Point to the pictures and name what you see.
  • Ask your child to point to things on the page.
  • As your child gets older, ask questions about the story.

Check out these tips on creating a reader-friendly home.

Watch for developmental milestones.
Babies and young children develop at their own pace. These checklists of developmental milestones can give you a general idea of what your child will be learning at each stage and what to expect next.

Get more developmental milestones for other ages.

If you have concerns, talk with your child’s doctor.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language, talk with your child’s doctor. Ask for a hearing test and a speech and language evaluation for your child. 

Your doctor may also suggest you contact the early intervention program in your community. Early intervention programs provide services to help children under age 3 who have a disability or developmental delay. Learn more about early intervention.

What about cost?
Developmental screenings (tests) are covered under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get your child screened at no cost to you.

Check with your insurance provider to find out what’s included in your plan. For information about other services for children that are covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.

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