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11 prelinguistic skills your child should have before talking

9 Skills Your Child Should Have Before Talking

Many parents consider their baby’s first birthday to be the beginning of their child’s language development. After all, it is when most children begin to talk!

But actually…

Speech and language development begins from the very moment your baby is born. In fact, your babies’ first cry after birth is his first way of communicating with you. From that moment, your child’s brain is rapidly growing to keep up with the demands that come from being a baby, child, and finally, adult.

when should my child say their first word?

Most children say their first word around 12 months old. There are some discrepancies between the AAP, CDC and speech-language pathologists about how many words a 12 month old should have. But, as a milestone, 90% of children have at least 1 word by their birthday (and what a sweet birthday gift, it is!). 

Some of the most popular first words are:





-uh oh (yes, we consider this a word!)

While first words emerge around 12 months, your child has been meeting communication milestones well before that! Think smiling, laughing, playing. While they may not be as meaningful to you as their first words, these skills are foundational to speech and language development. 

This means that most effective communicators have mastered these skills before beginning to talk. 

As a speech pathologist, I work with many late talkers or children with language impairments who don’t always have these foundational skills. It’s so important that we target these in therapy to strengthen their communication!

So, what skills does my child need to have before talking?

1. Responds to his/her environment & people

Your child should have a general responsiveness to the world around them– they should react to things they see, hear and feel. For example, does your child respond to a caregiver’s voice, turn his head towards a dog barking or respond to a shaking rattle? 

Smiling emerges around 3 months old and laughing emerges soon after. Our social interactions teach our children to respond to the environment and people around them.

How to: Shake a rattle so baby turns head towards sound, get close to baby’s face when speaking, read and feel sensory books

2. Takes turns through interactions

When we have conversations with others, we take turns speaking: someone speaks, and the other listens. Although our infants aren’t talking yet, they can take turns. We can engage in turn-taking activities with them through simple games, like rolling a ball back and forth.

How to: Tickles!– Tickle your baby and wait for them to respond (through eye contact, smile, movement). Once they reciprocate, continue the tickles, stop, and repeat. 

3. develops a longer attention span & shares attention

As our infants are young, most do not have a long attention span. However, as they grow older, our children should be able to spend more time with an activity. Their attention span increases as they get older.

Think of a baby with a puzzle. An infant will hold the piece for a second, maybe put it in their mouth and then shift attention and crawl to a different toy. However, as they get older, that same child might actually attempt the puzzle because their attention span (and cognitive skills!) has improved.

Sharing attention might mean him looking at an object that you say aloud (e.g., ball) or looking back and forth between you and the object that you are both playing with. 

How to: Increase reading time each week, movement activities, sing songs.

4. initiates interaction with others

A child needs to initiate communication in order to get what they want or advocate for themselves, amongst many other communicative functions. Communication is meaningful. Children often first initiate communication through vocalizations (such as babbling) or gestures before using words. 

How to: Forget to give milk (or any highly desired object), and wait for your child to  initiate communication.

5. imitates actions, gestures and sounds

As adults, we learned to speak by listening to others’ language over and over and then imitating what they said. However, before that, we learned to imitate movements and gestures, as these are often “easier” than imitating a fine motor movement, such as coordinating your tongue, jaw, lips and air flow to speak.

How to: movement activities like the “Freeze Dance,” songs with repetitive hand gestures like “Baby Shark,” play with farm animals and give them a sound!

6. uses gestures spontaneously

Gestures begin to emerge around 9 months old. Early gestures include showing objects, waving, giving a toy, reaching, raising arms and shaking their head. In fact, your child should have 16 gestures by 16 months. Often, SLPs will work on imitation skills such as these prior to spoken language.

How to: Use gestures as you talk everyday, wave to every item in the room when your child wakes up and goes to bed.

7. PLays with toys in a variety of ways

Children learn best through play! When children play, they are developing important cognitive skills, such as problem solving, planning and coordinating movements and increasing their attention span. We want to see children engaging with their environment and building natural curiosity.

How to: PLAY! PLAY! PLAY! Show them different ways to use blocks (as a road, to stack and dump over, as stairs). 

8. understands simple directions and early words

Children need to understand language before they can express language. Without an understanding of language, they would not be able to communicate through words.

How to: Keep your language simple, so that it’s easier to understand. As your child moves, add a direction– if your child is going to knock down blocks, quickly say “knock it down!”

9. vocalizes purposely

We want our children to be loud! Although they may not be communicating by words yet, children should be babbling or happily yelling/shrieking to gain your attention. Children need to be motivated to communicate. We do not communicate if we don’t have something to say.

How to: Imitate your child’s sounds. Add sounds to your play, so that he will eventually imitate.

how does speech therapy help?

Although your child may not yet be speaking, speech-language pathologists also work on the foundational skills needed to talk. Many times, if prelinguistic skills are absent or delayed, an SLP will target these essential skills first. Because the SLP is only with your child for a short period of time, the SLP will provide you with strategies to strengthen your child’s prelinguistic communication skills!

Are you concerned about your child’s speech and language development? If you live in Frederick County, Maryland or Northern Loudoun County, Virginia, book a free phone consultation with me to learn how I can help your child.

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