By: Mandy Griffin, MS, CCC-SLP


Parents seek the advice of Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) when there is concern that their child isn’t talking. There are several early communication skills that SLPs observe well before a child’s first words appear. These skills emerge shortly after birth and continue to develop beyond their first birthday.

What skills should emerge in the early phases of development?

  • Eye contact is one of the earliest forms of communication. An infant uses eye contact as a greeting and as a means to interact. When a baby makes eye contact, we should always respond with a smile, verbal greeting, funny face, or other reciprocal gesture.
  • Joint attention occurs when you and your child share the same interest in an object either by interacting with the object or looking at the object. Books are a great example.
  • Social referencing occurs when your child wants you to watch them play or or perform. This may occur when a child hears a loud noise and looks at you for a reaction or for an emotional response.
  • Turn taking is an essential skill that will lead to the development of conversation. Turn taking begins with taking turns during play and eventually taking turns while talking.
  • Motor imitation happens when children learn to imitate physical movement (waving, shaking head no, “so big”). Motor imitation improves eye contact and overall social interaction.
  • Initiating social games occurs when a child attempts to start a game or interaction. An example would be the game of “peek a boo.” A child covers up his/her face with a blanket and waits for the parent to remove the blanket.
  • Gesture is when a child uses their body to tell us what they want. For example, pointing to their cup to tell you they want more milk, waving to indicate “bye,” raising their arms to be picked up.
  • Sound imitation a precursor to imitating words. During play, see if your child can imitate blowing raspberries, making animal or car sounds, or creating silly noises with their mouths.
    Early sounds begin with babbling. Repetitive syllables like “dada” tend to show up first. Soon, they are followed by varying syllables like “daddy.” The earliest sounds to emerge are typically: /p, b, m, n, w, h/
  • First words generally emerge around 12-18 months. Children understand more language than they can produce. When children say their first words, the productions will be an approximation of the real word (“mo” for “more,” or “ba” for “ball”).
  • How can these skill be facilitated?

  • Play!
  • Establish routines!
  • Talk to your kiddo throughout the day and describe what you are doing during activities of daily life (i.e., “time to change your diaper, let’s wash your hands, I see daddy!”)
  • Read books!
  • Avoid screen time!
  • What if these early communication skills aren’t emerging?

  • Visit with your primary care physician or other developmental specialist
  • Contact Red Door Pediatric Therapy for a free screen at 701-222-3175
  • More resources:
    The Speech Room News
    Super Duper Publications