Baby’s speech development: What you need to know

Baby’s speech development: What you need to know

By Dr Jane Williams

The first act of speech is the birth cry ‘I have arrived’. Crying continues to be the means of communication for the first few months. Parents soon recognise the different patterns of crying – the ‘I’m hungry cry’, ‘I need you’, ‘I am hurt’, ‘I’m sleepy’, ‘I’m tired’ and so on. Close behind, happy sounds come along, indicating ‘I’m happy’, ‘I’m being attended to’, ‘Mum’s around me’, ‘I’m being talked to’, etc.


Communication is purely reflexive and spontaneous in the first few months after birth. We hear a variety of sounds from our baby. These vocalisations are a spontaneous response of the motor system.

Sensory-motor loop

A flood of information goes into the baby’s brain through the five senses. The auditory pathway plays a significant role in developing hearing and listening and is crucial for speech and language skill development. The ongoing, constant information processing matures the pathways and sets in motion the experiments and language experiences that develop as skills for language and communication.

Speech is probably the most complex motor output of the brain. When all systems are working and firing, speech is a spontaneous expression.

When an infant’s neurophysiology cannot keep up with all the demands of development, speech seems to be one of the natural choices of compromise. Nature (the brain) holds back in this area to give attention to other needs elsewhere.

State of wellbeing

The auditory pathway must work well for normal speech and language to be acquired. Signals have to arrive in the central nervous system. As a baby integrates these incoming messages, they are able to store and retrieve them as required. Allergies, middle ear infections, recurrent colds and coughs and general weakness of physiology can interfere with and delay the signals arriving. Or in other words, they can delay the motor responses of communication.

Early childhood movements such as rolling, commando crawling and creeping strengthen the foundation for speech and language skills. A stronger, healthier physiology allows for longer vocalisation and a wider variation of sounds. The better the respiratory reserves, the louder and longer the sounds emitted. Lack of vital capacity and respiratory reserves may delay the support and promotion of speech.

The influence of movement in the moulding of speech (articulation and pronunciation), cannot be understated. All movement activates the coordination and integration centres in the brain. The articulators of speech in the mouth are also the articulators for the chewing of food. There is a normal progression for a baby from pureed soft foods to more chewy foods about the same time as the babbling phase begins, during which time there is lots of practising of the sound skills needed for adult speech.

Great awareness

As a baby listens to mum, dad and a whole range of environmental sounds, tonal recognition occurs. They are building a library of sounds that they can use later.  Words spoken with kind tones are well received and when the baby is ready, this perception is reciprocated with smiles, cooing and gurgles! On the other hand, angry tones, even if not directed at the baby, can trigger discomfort, fear and tears. The content of what is being said is not the focus, but rather the tone of voice. A baby does not understand what is being said but reacts to the manner of presentation.

The first year of life is the key period in which speech sounds are laid down in the memory pathways of the brain. This is the time to introduce a second language and expose your baby to a variety of language-based sounds. Talk, sing and read to your baby as often as you can. Use accurate language when talking, except when you are imitating the early sounds they are making, blowing raspberries, tongue clicking etc. When you ask your baby a question, give them time to respond, i.e., leave a gap. Not only do they enjoy the time you are sharing with them, but their brains are also busily laying down the pathways that provide the foundations for later speech, conversations and language development.

Ridiculous rhymes that babies love!

Movement is an important part of speech development, so tap on your baby’s body, wriggle fingers and toes, move body parts up and down, or dance around the room while you recite these poems, sing these songs and play these baby games. You will find hundreds more delightful baby songs, baby activities and games in our free online video series here: Active Babies Smart Kids

Scrub your dirty hands (from our free online ABSK series)

I hear thunder
I hear thunder, I hear thunder
Hark don’t you, hark don’t you?
Pitter patter raindrops
Pitter patter raindrops
I’m wet through! So are you!

A leopard has lots of spots
What a lot of spot’s he’s got
A tiger has stripes, like long thin pipes
But a leopard has lots of spots, spots, spots, spots.

Giddy-up horsey
Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up horsey
Giddy-up, giddy-up, go, go go!
Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, horsey
Giddy-up, giddy-up, whoa!

Jelly on a plate
Jelly on a plate, jelly on a plate
Wibble wobble, wibble wobble
Jelly on a plate
Biscuits in a tin, biscuits in a tin
Shake them up, shake them up
Biscuits in a tin.

Dr Jane Williams (PhD, BMgt, RN(Paeds)) is the Research and Education General Manager for GymbaROO and KindyROO. Dr Williams is one of Australia’s leading experts on baby and child development.