Language development: birth to 6 years

Childhood Development expert, Anastasia Moloney, discusses language milestones and some fun and simple activities to help your child learn and grow.

Laura Penley

As parents, we know it is important to support our child’s language so they can successfully communicate with us, as well as others. The best ways to support a child’s development is by being a strong language model, a good listener, and a communication partner.

A child needs language for social interactions, to communicate their needs, and to navigate their world. Language development begins with a newborn’s cry and continues as they become active participants in everyday conversation.

The great news is that your child has an amazing resource to help encourage development of their language skills: you! By continuously talking to your child throughout the day—no matter their age—you are reinforcing their understanding of language and exposing them to sounds and new words. The simplest way to do this is by describing what you see, hear, feel, taste and smell in the world all around you. Even if your child is not old enough to speak, acknowledge and expand on their attempts to make sounds. For example, when your toddler says: “car!”, you can respond by saying “I see a red, big car. The car goes fast.” Or if it’s babbling – and they say “d-d-d” you can expand to “dad” or “dog” or other “d” words you see. The beauty of this is in its simplicity: what you and your child talk about is not nearly as impactful as the act of talking itself.

Specific language development milestones and an activity suggestions are broken down in more detail below. All of these activities can be used to include siblings of various ages. It is often helpful to have the older sibling involved in the activity, encourage them to be a good language model for their younger sibling as this will help build their language skills as well.

It is helpful to understand what milestones our children should be reaching at each age in order to make sure they are meeting them as well as making sure we are providing the correct resources to challenge them as they grow. In these early years so much learning is happening and many milestones are met each day. It is important to remember that children each develop at their own rate and that’s why all milestones whether for language, social or motor are all given in ranges. If you have any concerns about your child’s development there are many community resources available often starting with your child’s doctor.

What to expect and ways to support your child’s language development

3 to 12 months

Key milestones:

Your baby turns to look in the direction of sound and responds to changes in the tone of your voice or familiar words. She babbles, imitates various speech sounds and begins using some gestures to communicate, such as waving or reaching to be picked up. An important early milestone that occurs before 6 months is seeing your baby begin to smile and laugh.


Get on your baby’s level or hold them in your lap to establish eye contact, and sing various songs or rhymes with hand actions. Some examples of these games include peek-a-boo, clapping, blowing kisses, pat-a-cake, itsy bitsy spider, and waving bye-bye. These games teach turn-taking which is needed for conversation.

12 to 18 months

Key milestones:

Your child’s first words are emerging and she uses more gestures to communicate, such as pointing. She begins to attend longer to simple stories and songs.


Make bath time “sound play time,” since you are at their eye level. You can blow bubbles and make the “b-b-b” sound, or find a toy boat with an engine that makes a “rrr-rrr-rrr” sound. Make up silly sounds and encourage your child to imitate.

18 to 24 months

Key milestones:

Your child’s vocabulary will continue to expand each day, and she will begin to put two words together such as “more milk” or “what’s that?”. You will also see your child pointing to different pictures in a book when they are named.


Ask your child to point to pictures or objects while reading stories or when playing. Take turns finding objects and model expanded language about the object, such as “where is the ball?” Child points to the ball and may say “ball”. You can add “blue ball” or “big blue ball”, etc.

2-3 years

Key milestones:

Your child will begin using 2 to 3 word phrases. She will also understand the difference in meaning such as stop/go, big/little, up/down, etc.


Play “I spy” with books, using your surroundings, or even on the go. Use simple adjectives and introduce colors, size, etc. After modeling the game, allow your child to ask you to find things. Use various descriptive words to describe what you want them to look for.

3-5 years

Key milestones:

In this age range your child begins to ask as well as understand who, what, where, and why questions. Your child is learning to keep conversation on topic and talks about what she did that day. People outside the family can typically understand what the child is saying.


Look at pictures in books, family photos, magazines, and take turns describing what is happening.

5-6 years

Key milestones:

At this age children are beginning to read and write. The sentences they use to communicate are longer, and they are able to tell stories.


Create fairytale stories together; elaborate on what your child starts and encourage them to drive the direction of the story. Take turns adding to it. You can write it down while they tell the story and read it at bedtime.

Image from @lauraslensonlife