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Tips to Get Tots Talking + Signs Speech is Imminent

Updated: Mar 21

baby babbling practicing speech

By Alice Roche Cody


When our oldest son, Sean, was learning to talk, I worried constantly that something was wrong because he was slow to speak. Fearful that he’d never be able to form words, a gripping panic filled me. I dreaded every checkup because he wasn’t hitting the expected milestones. Then his pediatrician warned that if he didn’t talk in sentences within two weeks, he’d need an extensive evaluation. In the first few days, he started calling himself “Nana” and referred to his sippy cup as “Baba.” Sure enough, before the 14 days were up, he said, “Nana want baba.” Only a three-word sentence, but it sounded perfect.


At the time, had I been familiar with Lorraine McCune’s research into how children learn language, I could have relaxed and watched his progress unfold with a sense of wonder, instead of anxious apprehension. Even though Sean wasn’t talking per se, he had hit certain relatively unknown milestones – ones that parents and even physicians don’t always know about. Had I been clued in on the way he played with his trucks or how he pointed and grunted when he wanted a cookie, I would have been reassured that he was right on track.


What Dr. McCune, a developmental psychologist at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education, would like parents to know is that there are several signs, ones that may not be obvious, that can reveal when children will shift into language. In her book, How Children Learn to Learn Language (Oxford University Press), she demonstrates how predicting language growth is based on a dynamic system of developmental variables.

In our recent interview, Dr. McCune discussed these speech milestones, along with practical advice for parents, the importance of pretend play, and how it all starts with a grunt.


Alice Roche Cody: If only I had known about your research when I was raising my sons! They both had perceived speech issues, and this knowledge would have saved me tremendous angst. What are the signs that parents may not be aware of that can predict when their child will begin talking?

Lorraine McCune: A not-so-obvious sign that tells parents that language is on the way is when babies begin to grunt to convey a message. Uh! While no specific message is contained in the sound, your baby obviously wants something from you. This is a communicative grunt and happens when the baby has an idea in mind of what they would like to say but don’t yet know how to say it. Many times parents don’t notice the grunts, but they may notice the child is trying to communicate, especially if there are gestures.

Communicative grunts are an important indication that the child is making a step forward in language development. When you hear these relatively frequently, that’s a sign that language is just around the corner. A few other skills also must be in place, so a baby who is missing these might be producing communicative grunts, but you still may not see language for a few months.

ARC: How should parents respond to communicative grunts?

LMcC: Treat it like any other communication. If it seems like they are looking for a word, tell them the word. If it looks like they want something, you can get it for them. Parents should try to understand and see what their baby wants and interpret it.

ARC: You mentioned that other skills need to be in place, along with communicative grunts, to signal that language is near – what else must be happening?

LMcC: Learning to pretend is another important step in language acquisition. Babies first understand the world through their own movements and related sounds. Pretend play acts, like drinking from a nesting cup, tell us they are having an idea that’s really a symbol in their mind. The idea goes beyond reality because that nesting cup isn’t really something you drink from, and your baby isn’t really drinking. All that is in the baby’s mind, and they are using their body to express it because they don’t have the word yet. It’s also called symbolic or representational play.

ARC: Are there other signs?

LMcC: Yes, babbling. When babies babble, they make strings of consonant sounds. The syllables are produced in a regular time-locked fashion: ba, ba, ba, or da, da, da. One consonant is repeated, or several consonants are interlaced, da, ba, da. Babbling has timing, just like speech, and consists of strings of consonant sounds. People have known about babbling, but what they didn’t think about was that to begin to form words, the child needed to have special control of the vocal apparatus, to make specific sounds on purpose. They needed to know what to do with their mouth to make da come out, for example, instead of ga. You may notice your child's babble focuses on one or two 'favorite sounds. Some kids say a lot of 'B,' and others say 'K' or 'D."

Frequent use of one or two sounds for a few days or weeks signals that they can make that sound on purpose.

Babbling begins with no goal, but with speech, you must have a goal in mind. When they’ve got communicative grunts and symbolic play, and now you’re hearing consonants – especially the repetition of more than one –they’ve got all the pieces in place. The child may have said a few simple words before this point, but with all the skills in place, the frequency of word production increased, and new words popped up every day.

ARC: Can you tell me more about pretend play?

LMcC: Yes, an important piece I want to mention is that to predict the shift to words, the pretend play should be a combination of two related actions that happen one after the other.

ARC: What are some pretend play combinations parents can look out for?

LMcC: If the child has some trucks and Little People, an earlier level is to roll the truck back and forth and make sounds. Then they’ll get to the point where they put people in the truck and push it; that would be a combination. Or your child may want to comb her own hair and then reach out to her doll and comb her doll’s hair; that’s a combination. Any time they make one play act and then another play act and put pieces together, that’s a combination.

ARC: Sean used to drive his trucks around on the floor with his little people inside and make all kinds of Vroom noises. Who would have thought that these were signs he’d soon be speaking?

LMcC: Well, yes and no! Rolling trucks with sound is one of the earliest symbolic play actions. Remember, we also need consonant sounds and communicative grunts.

It’s important to mention that parents should consider seeking a professional evaluation if their child is not babbling or making consonant sounds at 18 months. There could be an organic or motor difficulty preventing speech, and sometimes, a speech professional can help resolve the issue.

ARC: That’s helpful for parents to keep in mind. Are there ways parents can play with their kids to help language development with younger children, say below 9 months?

LMcC: Language comes out of a child’s relationship with their parents, so all your interactions with your baby make it easier for them to use language when they’re ready. For example, a 3-month-old baby, you hold her out in front of you and she looks back at your face. She seems to notice you as a person for the first time. That’s a time to smile at each other and make some sounds and funny faces. This engagement will lead to communication later. A fun milestone at 6 to 9 months is when you hold your baby on your shoulder, and suddenly, he pulls back and looks straight in your face. That’s an important milestone and comes from playing face-to-face. Babies pay attention to you, and play emerges from your interactions.  

In the early period, it’s just about seeing what they’re doing, and joining in the activity. For example, a parent can repeat the baby’s vocalizations back to him or expand on what the child says. A five-month-old is likely to be cooing and humming, but a parent looking into the baby’s eyes and making slow babble sorts of sounds bah, bah, bah might excite the baby’s interest and push them to try these sounds.

A funny kind of play is when the child is in the highchair, and they drop the spoon on the floor. They’re testing gravity and learning about space. This is important for language acquisition. Participating in this repeated activity facilitates social interaction with you. Secondly, it leads to a recognition that opposite reactions can happen. Something can fall and be retrieved. It also shows that you are interested in their little life, their story of what their day is like.

ARC: How else can parents engage with their babies to help them learn language?

LMcC: Activities like patty cake, peek-a-boo, Jack-in-the-box. Babies enjoy mirror play. Hold your baby in front of a mirror and interact with them in front of it. Or, whatever they like to do socially with you is what’s good to do.

Once a baby sits up and plays with toys in a more complicated way, parents can initiate a play session. Have a set of toys that you take out once a week. Sit on the floor with your child and present the toys in a basket so your child can take them out. Given they are safe and age-appropriate, include toys like a baby doll with clothes and a blanket, stuffed animals, blocks, books, a small brush and comb, a toy cup and saucer, trucks and Little People, nesting cups, Jack-in-the-box, toy toolbox, phone, and mirror and 5-piece puzzles. Your child will only see these toys when you’re sitting with them. It can be fun! Start by watching. Resist telling them what to do. Let your baby show you and let them know what you think of their play. You can even make videos on your phone and see changes over time. In our research, we sometimes needed to view the videos many times before we recognized the critical bits of interest.

ARC: What is your current research focusing on these days?


LMcC: I’m writing a new book called Grunts to Grammar, based on my early research studying communicative grunts and what children need to know to establish a vocabulary of words. It extends to developing a dialog with parents and the shift to grammar. I’m also working with students on The Naming Project, about how parents and children ask and answer each other about names. Moms asking children to name things has been studied, but no one seems to have studied how a very young child begins asking a parent for a name. I find that mother and baby develop a routine for asking and answering the naming question. This seems to be a prelude to grammar, but I’m not sure why.


ARC: To recap, then, what is the number one thing parents can do to facilitate a child’s speech?

LMcC: Pay attention to your child. Whatever they are doing, be with them on it.

ARC: Put the phone down?

LM: Well, interacting with your baby can give the phone some serious competition.

ARC: Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to add?

LMcC: It’s important to know that language acquisition is a system; different pieces are developed at different paces. I suggested the pieces to look for. Gestures also give important clues. If you’re paying attention to your child and your child is pointing at something, talk about what they are pointing at. If they extend an object to you, they're going to want you to take it and give it back. It’s all about paying attention to your child.


Alice Roche Cody is a mom, wife, and freelance writer based in New Jersey and Florida. Her work has been published in The Star-Ledger,, The Record (Hackensack, NJ), The Rumpus, The Black River Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, and TIFERET Journal. Her personal narrative, “A Sacred Gift,” was one of 60 essays selected from more than 100,000 submissions for inclusion in the book, This I Believe: On Motherhood (Wiley & Sons). 



During her 50-year career at Rutgers, Dr. Lorriane McCune has become a leading international expert on language development in children. She teaches educational psychology at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education. The author of How Children Learn to Learn Language (Oxford University Press), her upcoming book is titled From Grunts to Grammar.

Cover photo by Keira Burton


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