Understanding the stages of baby babble

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Parents the world over love the sound of baby babble, from the first gurgling vocalizations, to the entertaining and sometimes maddening jargon of the 1-year-old that seems almost, almost like real words and sentences.

Baby sounds are cute and funny, but they also represent important developmental milestones in speech, motor, cognitive and social development. Babbling develops in stages, each stage indicating steps to speech.

The way babies use their sounds shows their growing understanding of the world and other people. Normal infant babbling helps us know that communicative development is on track.

Speech is one of the most complex motor acts that humans do. It involves the coordination of breathing, voicing, articulation and resonance – hundreds of muscles working together with millisecond timing.

There are five major stages of babbling development, and they occur with the maturation of different parts of the speech system.

In the first two months of life, newborns cry, cough, grunt and sneeze, but these sounds do not involve the vocal cords vibrating with a smooth, speech-like quality. Along with these natural sounds, newborns make what are called quasi-vowel sounds, which do have the smooth onset and sound quality of speech.

The voice box, or larynx, is beginning to practice the type of vibration necessary for true vowel sounds. However, the rest of the vocal tract is at rest. The voice does not yet sound like speech. This is called the Phonation Stage.

From two to three months of age, infants enter into the Gooing Stage. In this stage, primitive movements of the articulators – the lips and tongue – become more coordinated with phonation, and we begin to hear consonant-like sounds, although these are not yet fully formed.

During this stage, babies begin to coordinate their gooing sounds with eye contact, and begin to take turns making sounds with a delighted parent or care provider. Social skill development is under way!

In the Expansion Stage, beginning at four to five months, many new sounds arise. We begin to hear fully resonant vowel sounds, and babies explore pitch and intensity in squealing, yelling, growling, whispering and raspberries.

Laughter emerges at this time. Have the video camera ready! Babies at this stage begin to use all their sounds in playful self-expression, and some begin to be able to imitate sounds in their repertoire.

The articulators become more coordinated, and the voice sounds speech-like, but Expansion Stage babbling still does not sound word-like.

Around six to seven months, true Canonical babbling emerges. The articulators, resonance and voice become fully coordinated, resulting in sounds that are recognized as real syllables. At this stage, parents are quick to interpret baby’s syllables as attempts at words.

That is, when we hear “ba-ba” we see it as an attempt to name something and we may propose a word in return. “Oh, did you say Papa?” The Canonical Babbling Stage continues for several months, as the brain begins to recognize, order and catalog the sounds of the ambient language.

Sounds not in the child’s language drop away, while commonly heard sounds are mastered. Canonical babbles will start out as re-duplicated (repeated) syllables, but soon sounds are being combined freely into lots of different babbles, with mixed consonant and vowel sounds.

The last stage of babbling development is the Integrative, or Jargoning, Stage, which typically begins between 10 and 15 months of age. First words emerge near the first birthday, and complex babbling combines with a few real words to form what is called jargon.

Intonation develops, so that we hear nonsense gibberish that has the sound of comments, questions and commands. The toddler seems to be speaking in a language of his own.

This jargon is well-coordinated with gestures, body language and eye contact, and the child at this stage understands much more language than he can say.

Gradually, real words take over and the babbling period ends. Normal progression through the stages of babbling is a good indicator that speech, language, motor and cognitive/social development are on track.

If the stages of babbling are delayed or absent, or if first words do not emerge by 15 months, the baby should be referred to an early intervention speech and language pathologist for evaluation.

Deborah L. Bennett, M.S. CCC-SLP is a speech and language pathologist at Monadnock Speech & Language in Keene. For more information, call 603-491-2941 or email debbieslp@mac.com.