Talking Heads Speech Pathology's Sonia Bestulic shares tips on how to help kids speak their first words

Speech pathologist Sonia Bestulic helps children boost their vocabulary skills. Picture: John Veage
Speech pathologist Sonia Bestulic helps children boost their vocabulary skills. Picture: John Veage

When it comes to first-time parenting, it is not unusual for an anxious mum or dad to turn to ‘Dr Google’ in an attempt to model ‘textbook’ children and developmental milestones.

Caringbah speech pathologist Sonia Bestulic from Talking Heads at Kogarah says while milestones can provide good information, they should only be used as an initial guide.

“People generally use Google as their first port of call to understand whether they should have any concerns or not,” she said.

She says a few months before a child turns one, they usually start to babble and play around with strings of sounds together  – for example ‘mamama’ and ‘babadada’. 

“First words typically appear around 12 months of age,” she said. “Often children at this age are using sounds, gestures and a few words, as well as having a go at copying different sounds and noises.”

“Between 12-18 months the number of words children say will increase.”

In 2016, 31.5 per cent of people across NSW spoke a language other than English at home compared to 27.5 per cent in 2011.

Children from non-English speaking backgrounds should continue to be exposed to their native language at home, the mother-of-three says.

“Milestones can ensure that the child’s home language is developing appropriately,” she said. “If the home language is Mandarin, you’d expect their first words to still appear between 12-18 months.”

“It is important that the child’s home language develops strongly as this forms their foundation for language learning and will help them to develop their English once they are exposed to the English speaking community in childcare/ preschool or school settings.”

Ms Bestulic says parents can play an important role in developing a child’s vocabulary.

Having a reading routine is key, as is repetition and using words in everyday activities.

“Talk about what you are doing or what your child is doing in simple, grammatically correct sentences,” Ms Bestulic said. “For example, if you are getting into the car, you may say ‘open the door’ or ‘turn the key’, and ‘car on’.

“Talk about what is around you in the environment – the supermarket, the doctor’s waiting room.

“Expand on what your child is saying by adding an extra word to what they have said. If they say, ‘train’, you may say ‘long train’.

“Build anticipation and wait – give your child the opportunity to respond. For example, Twinkle twinkle little...’ and leave out the last word.”

But red flags can appear if a child is not saying any words by 18 months of age.

“Have the child’s hearing checked to ensure there is nothing going on that could be contributing to slower progress with speech and language development,” Ms Bestulic said.