Besides “mama” and “dada,” few words are more synonymous with baby talk than “goo-goo” and “gaa-gaa.” Want to imitate a baby? Splutter a bunch of meaningless syllables in a row, without any rhyme or reason, and boom — you’ll instantly sound like an 8-month-old.
The randomized strings of vowels and consonants that babies produce are called babbling.
And while it probably seems totally insignificant when your little one is simply talking to themselves while smashing peas into the cracks of their highchair, you might wonder: Is babbling actually as meaningless to your child’s communication skills as it sounds?
No. In fact, a wide range of experts, from speech pathologists to pediatricians, know that babbling plays a pretty important role in the language development of infants. It helps them gain control over their articulation and express themselves.
Here’s what you should know about this early phase of communication and how you can encourage your little babbler to keep on baby talking.
Babbling is sometimes called baby talk (or jargon, when it begins to take on the intonations of speech) because it doesn’t make any sense to people with developed language. It sounds like someone threw a bunch of letters in a box, jumbled them up, and tossed them back out again.
To be clear, while babbling is a crucial stepping stone to communication, the words themselves don’t mean anything. In other words, if your baby is singing “babababababa” during breakfast and pointing at a backpack, they’re not actually trying to say “backpack.” They’re just… babbling!
But the babbling still has significance. It’s how your child first learns the art of putting sounds together and, later, assigning those sounds some kind of meaning.
In fact, babbling is so complex that there are actually three different types of it correlating with different infant ages:
- Marginal babbling. Between 4 and 6 months of age, your baby may start ramping up their vowel pronunciation and pairing vowel sounds with consonant sounds. Most of these are single syllables — think “daa” and “baa.”
- Canonical babbling. Your 6- to 10-month-old should start making recognizable syllable sounds — and stringing several of them together. This is where all that “goo-goo” and “gaa-gaa” stuff begins! There are even two types of canonical babbling:
- reduplicated, where a baby repeats the same syllable sound over and over (“deedeedeedee”)
- non-reduplicated, where the syllable sounds strung together are different (“meebaagoo”)
- Conversational babbling. You know those viral videos where a baby is “arguing” with Mom or Dad in nothing but baby talk — but their speech patterns mimic adult speech? This is the stage of conversational babbling where your baby still isn’t putting real words together yet, but they understand that typical dialogue between people includes expression, pauses, volume changes, and even hand gestures. This often starts around 10 months old and is the big finale before a baby speaks their first real word.
Your baby will start making sounds the minute they’re born, but true speech development in babies doesn’t start until around 4 months old.
They’ll babble almost exclusively until about 12 months of age, when their grasp of communication really ramps up. Once they start speaking legit words (and matching them up with their real world counterparts, like “Mama” and “Dada”), babbling decreases.
Need a better breakdown? Here’s a timeline:
- 2 to 4 months: cooing, gurgling, and long vowel sounds
- 4 to 6 months: marginal babbling, where vowels and consonants come together in single syllables
- 6 to 10 months: canonical babbling, where these single syllables start doubling (or tripling or quadrupling!) up to create strings of sounds, reduplicated or not
- 10 to 15 months: first words, yay!
- 15 months and beyond: nonstop. talking. (We kid! Sort of.)
Remember when we told you that experts know how important baby talk is? Let’s get back to that.
In the first 1 or 2 months of your baby’s life, they mostly communicate with you by crying and then smiling. Soon after, though, they start to coo — which, aside from being the cutest sound ever, is a sign that your baby is catching on to this whole “verbal communication” thing.
It also means they’re working on strengthening the oral muscles needed for speech, experts say (because even though your baby is sucking on the nipple — yours or a bottle’s — like a piranha around the clock, the muscles needed for talking are slightly different).
Babbling is even more important. Babies love to imitate, for sure, but this imitation is also part of how they learn. Interestingly, it’s also part of how babies interact and socialize.
On the flip side, a 2019 study suggests that a delay or absence of canonical babbling in babies can be a marker for the later diagnosis of certain developmental disorders, such as autism, and it draws a connection between baby talk and future language development.
All babies develop at different speeds, but in general, most babies will start babbling around 4 to 6 months old and stop babbling around 12 months (or whenever they start speaking their first words).
Again, there’s a lot of variability here, but most babies aren’t still babbling by the time they reach 18 months.
If your baby doesn’t start babbling (or at least “cooing”) at 4 or 5 months of age, don’t panic — there’s some wiggle room here. However, if your baby is 8 months old and still not babbling, you may want to make an appointment with your pediatrician.
A delay in language development can point to a few different causes, ranging from hearing and speech impairments to developmental disorders like autism.
Early intervention to any sort of child development delay can go a long way toward improving outlook for you and your child, so don’t hesitate to reach out and ask some questions.
If your pediatrician suspects a hearing or speech impairment, they’ll likely refer you to an audiologist and, perhaps, a speech-language pathologist for intervention. If they think the complication might be neurological, your child may need to see a developmental pediatrician or similar type of specialist.
If your baby is starting to babble and you want to give them some encouragement to keep going, there are many ways you can coach them along, including:
- Talk back. If you were chatting away to someone who was ignoring you, would you keep talking? The more you play along with your baby’s budding speech, responding to them as if what they’re saying makes sense, the more they’ll want to talk (and the quicker they’ll learn the right words for things along the way).
- Narrate your life. Put names to faces. Announce what foods you’re taking out of the fridge. Point out objects on a walk through the park. One of the ways babies learn to communicate is by connecting words to the visual images they represent, so the more you make those connections, the more your baby will learn. Narrate what you’re doing, as you’re doing it, and your baby’s language might just explode.
- Sing. Babies can learn a lot about both vocabulary and speech patterns when you sing to them regularly, so warm up those vocal cords and get familiar with all the lyrics to “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
- Read. Yes, it seems a little silly to read “Goodnight Moon” to a 4-month-old, but babies are sponges — and every exposure to word sounds, sentence structure, intonation, and speech patterns counts. Start reading when your baby is a newborn, experts say, and don’t stop until they ask you to (trust us, it might be longer than you think!).
- Imitate them (kind of). No, not to poke fun or to repeat baby talk… to let them know they’re legitimately communicating with you! Engaging with your baby’s speech patterns encourages them to keep initiating speech. Even if you just use words with similar sounds — rather than an exact imitation — and respond right away, it can be helpful in speeding up their language development, per
2014 research. For example, if baby says “bababa” while playing with a ball, you might respond with, “Yes, you’re playing with a ball. Is it a blue ball?”
- Make eye contact. This lets your little one know you are tuned into them and they have your full attention.
Listening to your baby babble is entertaining and adorable. But babbling also serves an important purpose in their overall language development.
Coming before their first words, babbling often starts around 4 to 6 months of age and continues through the first year.
You can encourage it by conversing with your baby, even though neither one of you has any idea what the other is saying, and exposing your baby to language in all its forms, including reading and singing.