Better Care

Language Development in the Early Years

Children begin to learn to communicate from the day they are born. Within their first few years they will begin to talk. Many do so without much effort at all. However some children will take much longer and appear to be slow to start speaking compared to others around them. Some of these children will catch up but some appear to have more difficulty. Some children may have short term difficulties that can be addressed through effective early intervention; others may have more persistent difficulties that require more on-going support.  

We know that communication provides a foundation for children’s development. Early language development is an important factor in the development of children’s literacy and as such a key part of their educational success.

There are many factors that can influence a child’s speech, language and communication development in the early years. We know that in areas of high social deprivation between 40-50% of children start school with a language delay.

Whilst there is still much research to be done around which factors have the biggest impact on children’s speech and language development we know that parents, carers and other key people in the lives of young children can play a very significant role in providing support to develop speech, language and communication.


In their first year babies develop many of the foundations of communication. They will begin to look at you, smile and laugh when you play with them. They will also begin to make sounds, sometimes called babbling.  Babbling is a way in which babies and young children begin to explore making sounds.

Supporting my baby’s language development

(click link to watch a Communication Trust video)


Somewhere between 12-24 months children will begin to say their first meaningful words. So they will say “Mama” or “Dada” to call a parent and get their attention.

Between two and three years, you will notice that your child moves from putting two words together in short phrases such as “car gone”  to beginning to use three words or more such as “me go shops”. Your child will understand simple and familiar two step instructions such as give the ball to teddy. They will begin to understand words such as ‘big’ and ‘little’.

By about three years old unfamiliar people will be able to understand most of what your child says even though they may still pronounce words differently to adults.

Supporting my toddler’s language development

(click link to watch a Communication Trust video)


Between three and five years, children begin to use more complex language; they may know lots of words about animals or foods and may be able to use words to describe feelings. You may notice that you are able to have conversations with your child about things that you have seen or done recently. 

Your child will be able to follow instructions with several steps such as ‘Go and take Mummy’s new shoes upstairs and put them at the back of the wardrobe’. They will be able to infer and predict what might happen next in a familiar story or situation such as ‘Oh no it’s raining outside and Daddy pig is going to get wet’.

  • Supporting my pre-schooler’s language development - click here to download resource.
  • Supporting language development in the early years - click here to download resource.

Individual children grow and develop at different rates and the above information is a brief guide.

Click here for more detailed information about what you can expect your child to be doing at certain ages.

When to refer to speech and language therapy

If you have concerns about the speech, language and communication development of your child or a child you are supporting, talk with your Health Visitor, setting key worker  or setting SENCo.

You can also contact our advice line. Following this you may decide to make a referral. You can refer to speech and language therapy using the referral form available on our website and you can do this yourself or ask school/nursery, a health visitor or doctor to do this for you.


Some leaflets for parents giving advice on working with your baby or child: 

Before words:          





Taking Part 


Talk To Your Baby  

Talk To Your Baby is a campaign run by the National Literacy Trust to encourage parents and carers to talk more to children from birth to three. 

Language Needs in the Early Years