It is never too early to start talking with your baby! Back-and-forth interaction is the best way to help children learn how to communicate.


The first three years of life are very important for language and communication development. As a newborn, babies cry to express that they need something. Within their first year, babies begin to smile and laugh, babble, make actions/gestures, and eventually use single words and word combinations to express what they want and need.

Babies and children use different senses to learn language, such as hearing and vision. For example, a child learning a spoken language needs to hear what their caregiver is saying. A child learning a sign language needs to be able to see their caregiver’s hand positions, movements and facial expressions.

Learn more about the different areas of language development:

Babies and children learn best through play and positive back-and-forth interactions. Play helps your child practice new skills, learn about the world around them and develop communication skills. Play is also important for your child’s mental health and well-being.
When we think of play, we often think of toys – but play comes in many forms! Some other ways to play include:

  • People Games (example: Peek-a-Boo)
  • Songs and rhymes
  • Dancing
  • Sharing books

Play is most helpful for learning when it is fun, interactive and led by your child. When you follow your child’s lead during play, your child will be able to explore things that interest them. This can also help you build interaction and talk about things that match what they enjoy.

As your child gets older, they will find continue to find new ways to play. Pretend play uses your child’s imagination, like taking care of a toy doll or acting out routines, such as going to school or cooking. Pretend play helps build language, thinking and social skills. Games with rules (examples: hide and seek, duck-duck-goose) can help your child develop new skills for turn taking and following directions.

Before they can use words, babies have to understand the meaning of words. This does not happen automatically – they need caring adults to help them, by using lots of different words and phrases.

When adults use words that match what is happening around them, babies and children begin to understand the meaning of those words. Repetition is very helpful – a child needs to hear/see a new word many times before they learn what it means.

As children get older, their receptive language skills help them:

  • Identify objects and pictures
  • Follow simple and complex instructions
  • Answer questions
  • Understand stories
  • Learn to read and understand written text

Babies and children express their needs in different ways, at different ages and in different situations.


Newborn babies and infants communicate mostly by crying, grunting, laughing, smiling and making different facial expressions. They need their caregivers to interpret their needs.

Actions and Gestures

Young babies use actions and gestures to make things happen. For example, a baby may reach their arms up to be picked up. Gestures are a helpful building block to developing language. It is important to interpret and respond to these actions so that your child keeps communicating.


Babies need lots of practice when they are learning to communicate – one way they practice is by babbling. Babies learning spoken language babble by making different sounds with their voice and mouth (examples: “ma” “baba” “badada”). Babies learning sign language babble by making different hand shapes and movements (example: open/close hand).

First Words

A baby’s first words are not always the same as adult words. Babies and young toddlers may shorten long words (example: “nana” for “banana”) or use sounds that are easier to say (example: “ta” for “cup”). They may also use their first words in different ways than an adult. For example, a baby may use the word “doggy” when talking about different animals, until they learn the words for other animals.

Tip: You will know if a sound or early sign is a word if your child uses it often to express or request the same things. First words also include gestures, like pointing, waving and reaching up.

Word Combinations & Sentences

By around 18-24 months old, toddlers begin to combine words into short phrases (examples: go car, more milk, want banana). This helps them communicate bigger ideas. Before they can combine words, your child needs to know lots of different words – including action words (examples: go, eat), location words (examples: up, in) and describing words (examples: big, happy).

As children get older, they use their expressive language to:

  • Describe objects and places
  • Share ideas and feelings
  • Ask questions (examples: who, what, where)
  • Talk about events (examples: past, present, future)
  • Tell stories

Many children learn to use more than one language. To learn more than one language, children need lots of exposure to each language and many opportunities to practice using the languages in everyday activities.

Learning more than one language will not cause or contribute to a language disorder.

  • If your child is learning one language well, but having trouble with another, they may need more language modeling and opportunities for practice.
  • If your child is having trouble learning how to communicate in any language, contact a speech-language pathologist for help.

It is normal for children learning more than one language to “mix” words from each language when they are sharing ideas (code switching).

  • Many adults who speak more than one language switch between each language  in conversation as part of their culture.
  • It will not confuse your child if you mix languages when talking to them – just remember that it is important that your child has enough opportunities to learn and practice different words and sentences in each language.

Talk to your child in the language(s) you are most comfortable using.

  • You don’t have to teach your child English/French if it is not the language you speak at home.
  • Your child will have many opportunities to learn English/French when they start school.

Whether your child is learning one language, or many languages, the best way to help them is by modeling language and having positive, back-and-forth interactions.

Babies learning a spoken language begin practicing speech sounds (examples: “puh”, “duh”, “ah”, “ee”) when they babble. They begin to put these sounds into words as they get older.

Some sounds are easier for babies and young children to say, such as vowel sounds (examples: “ee” “ah” “oo”) and sounds made with the lips (examples: mmmm, puh, buh). In most languages, these sounds are the first to develop.
Certain speech sound errors are common in early development. For example, in English, it is common for young children to say “tat” for “cat” or “top” for “stop”. If your child is having trouble saying certain sounds in words, you can help them by repeating the word with the correct sounds.

When your child is three years old, you should be able to understand most of what they say. Research shows that children learn most of the speech sounds in their first language by the age of five.

Literacy skills such as reading and writing are part of language and communication.

Your child’s language and communication skills are important to support their literacy development. When we read information, we use our language skills to understand the information (receptive language). Writing is another way to share our ideas (expressive language).

Phonological awareness skills are also important for reading and writing. For example:

  • Rhyming skills (example: cat, bat, hat, sat)
  • Matching letters and sounds (example: S makes the “ssss” sound)
  • Syllable awareness (example: caterpillar “ca-ter-pi-lar” has four syllables)
  • Identifying sounds in words (example: bus starts with the “buh” sound)

Sharing books and stories with your baby and toddler is one way you can help your child develop communication and literacy skills. Early experiences with books can help your child with their future reading and writing skills.