From coos to growls to sing-songy combinations of vowels and consonants, your baby's vocalizing and verbal experimentation may sound just as adorable as it is nonsensical. But listen closely and one day you’ll hear it: the first real word.

By 9 months, your baby will probably start stringing together "ma-ma" and "da-da" sounds without necessarily knowing what they mean. But when those sounds start to transform into words with meaning, it’s a milestone that feels like magic.

When do babies start talking?

Babies start talking — that is, attempt to express themselves in words with meaning — anywhere between 9 and 14 months. But babies start learning how to speak right after they’re born, mainly by watching and listening to you and other people.

Here’s a timeline of how baby’s speech will typically progress:

By the end of month 4

From birth, babies listen to the words and sounds all around them and begin to sort out their meanings, the first step in language acquisition. 

At 4 months, your baby will likely babble or even copy some of the babbling sounds he’s heard you make. His cries may also sound different, depending on whether he’s hungry, tired or in pain.

By the end of month 6

By about 6 months, your baby is picking up on the idea that the jumble of sounds he’s hearing every day include individual words. He may even understand a few of them, such as his name, and the names of other people and familiar objects. He may also make some sounds himself, and may string together a few vowels when he babbles, such as "ah," "eh" and "oh." Consonants like "m" and "b" may also appear too.

By the end of month 9

Your baby is starting to experiment with making sounds of his own — including some impressively long ones, like "ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma" and "ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba."

He may also start to mimic other people’s sounds and gestures, and understand what "no" means (whether he’ll listen is another thing altogether). All of this brings him closer, day by day, to saying his first word.

By the end of month 12

By the time your child is 1 year old, he can likely say at least one word like, "mama," "dada” or "uh-oh." He may also try to say the words he hears you say, as well as change the tone of his words — all of which is starting to sound something like real speech! 

When do babies say their first word?

Babies often say their first word around the age of 1, but it can vary from child to child. 

Some perfectly normal babies don’t say a recognizable word until 18 months, whereas some babies begin to communicate in word-sounds (like "ba-ba" for bye-bye, bottle or ball and "da-da" for dog, dad or doll) as early as 7 months.

"Da-da" seems to be slightly easier for babies to say than "ma-ma," so don’t be surprised if it's your baby’s first "real" word. Other popular first words include "uh-oh," "bye-bye" and, around 18 months of age, "no."

How to teach baby to talk

The best way to help your baby say his first words is to talk to him —  a lot! Your baby will be eager to pick up on your verbal cues. 

Narrate your day, describing what you’re doing as you dress your baby, cook dinner or walk down the street. Speak the names of objects and people. Read to your baby, pointing out objects and their names in the pictures he sees.

Ask questions, hold one-sided conversations — and listen if he answers. When he does vocalize, be sure to smile, make eye contact and show him that you’re listening. He’ll be encouraged by your attention — and excited to try again.

More ways to encourage a baby to talk:

  • Speak slowly and clearly, and focus on single words. There’s no need to resort to caveman-speak all the time around your baby, but slowing the pace as you flip through a picture book, or explaining in clear, simple language what you’re doing as you put the book back on the shelf, helps your child understand and focus on individual words. 
  • Use names rather than pronouns. Whenever possible, name the people you’re talking about rather than using the shorthand of a pronoun: "This is Mommy’s coffee" or "Here is Sarah’s bear" are both clearer and easier for babies to understand than "This is my coffee" or "Here is your bear."
  • Sing songs and rhyme rhymes. Your baby will learn valuable language skills from the simple rhythms and silly repetitions of nursery rhymes and songs.
  • Repetition is your friend. Repetition is your friend. (Get it?) Saying things not once but twice, singing the same songs over and over, pointing out the same flower pot every time you pass it on the street … all that repetition, boring as it may seem to you, is incredibly interesting to your little one, since it helps reinforce your child’s growing understanding of how a particular sound attaches to a particular thing — in other words, what individual words really mean.

What not to worry about

When it comes to speech, the window of what’s considered "normal" is wide open. Your child may start to use sound-words like "mi" for "milk" or "dat" for "that" (as in, "I want that!") as early as 7 months. Or your child might not start to say words or word-sounds until as late as 18 months. 

Believe it or not, it’s just as appropriate to hear a child’s first words at either end of that age range — or at any age in between. Every child develops at his own pace. 

When to talk to your doctor

If you notice any of the following signs in your baby, it’s a good idea to check in with your pediatrician:

  • Not babbling at 4 to 7 months
  • Only making a few sounds or gestures by 12 months
  • Not saying simple words like "ma-ma" or "da-da" by 12 to 15 months
  • Not understanding simple words like "no" or "stop" by 18 months. 

These can sometimes signal something’s up. Here’s what your pediatrician will look for:

  • Hearing loss or hearing difficulties, which can occur at birth or develop in infancy or toddlerhood. If there's a family history of hearing loss, tell your pediatrician. Hearing problems can make it difficult for children to learn how to speak. Your pediatrician may be able to treat mild hearing loss that results from, for example, fluid that has accumulated in the inner ear, or can refer you to an ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist).
  • Language delays, which affect about 1 out of 5 children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Sometimes, this delay is only minor, and may resolve itself with a little extra attention from a parent or caregiver. In other cases, children may benefit from working with a speech and language therapist.
  • Autism, a spectrum disorder (also called autism spectrum disorder, or ASD), can result in social or language delays. Let your pediatrician know if your child doesn't respond to his name by 9 months or if he doesn't make eye contact when you speak to him.

In general, the earlier a speech delay is detected, the sooner you’ll be able to address it. 

What’s next for baby

Long before he speaks his first words, your baby will learn to understand words, but understanding concepts and directions takes a little longer. 

Sometime around the first birthday, most toddlers can begin following simple commands "like give me that" or "put that down," but only if they’re issued one step at a time. Your toddler’s vocabulary will likely begin to explode around month 18, and he may string a few words together by age 2.

Every baby develops at his own pace, but if you have any concerns about your child’s development, don't hesitate to check in with your pediatrician sooner rather than later.