Originally published on The Swaddle
During their first year, babies’ brains are programmed to learn language. They absorb it naturally and quickly – just like a bird learns to fly or a fish, to swim. In fact, speech and language development begins in utero, as early as the second trimester – because while babies are born with a natural capacity to learn to speak language, the actual learning is a long and complex process that starts well before the first word is uttered.
Within the first 13 months of life, babies go from crying, cooing and grunting – all important forms of communication – to speaking meaningful first words. This is a lot of growth and development at a very rapid rate. And it is precisely for this reason that the first year is so integral in spotting and addressing speech difficulties. Because some children – through no fault of anyone – develop speech disorders.
Not all speech disorders become apparent in Year 1, of course, but many do, making early intervention critical to speech and language development. The urgency isn’t because speech disorders are contagious (they’re not), but because, if unaddressed, speech disorders do put children at risk of lasting developmental delays.
Think about it: All other learning – of maths, of science, of interpersonal soft skills, etc. – takes place via language. Even a child with the most advanced IQ (speech disorders can affect children of all ability levels) would struggle to pick up new information if he or she struggles with the medium – speech/language – through which it is communicated.
The good news is Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child describes children’s neural circuits — which form their foundation for learning, behaviour and health — as most flexible, or “plastic,” during the first years of life. As a child ages, these pathways become more rigid and set – and any speech disorder, more ingrained. (While delayed speech therapy can still be helpful, it is likely to be less effective and more expensive at a later age.)
But when a speech disorder is identified in a child’s first year, and speech therapy embarked upon, the child picks up language at a much faster rate; the chance of a lasting developmental delay is lessened; and any learning gap between him and his peers is minimized.
So, during your child’s first year, celebrate the following milestones of speech and language development – and watch for the following red flags.
Year 1 language development milestones
Milestone: At 1 to 2 months, your baby coos, cries and grunts. Milestone: At 3 to 4 months, your baby starts to smile
Milestone: At 4 to 5 months, your baby recognizes the sound pattern of her own name and can distinguish between other names that have the same inflection and number of syllables.
Milestone: At around 6 months, your baby starts to babble and recognize his or her father or mother and their voices.
Milestone: Between 6 to 12 months, your baby begins to gesture and understand some simple words.
Milestone: By around 11 to 13 months, your baby speaks a meaningful first word.
Year 1 language development red flags
Red flag: At 6 months, high-risk children (children born pre-term or with a disability like Down syndrome) should be assessed by a speech therapist as a matter of course.
Red flag: If by 8 to 10 months, your child does not seem interested in communication, doesn’t point or imitate adult actions, or doesn’t make eye contact, consult a speech therapist.
Red flag: If by 1 your child is still communicating by pointing and babbling instead of talking, he is learning language and may be a late talker. There is no immediate need to consult a speech therapist, but keep a close watch on his language development.
Red flag: If by 18 months your child speaks no actual words, she should be assessed by a speech therapist. Research shows that 40 to 50% of late talkers do not “catch up” to their peers on their own; even if they appear to do so, they are at a higher risk for having reading difficulties.