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!


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.

The post Your Child’s Speech and Language: The First Word appeared first on Playing With Words 365.

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