Babies make lots of fun and strange noises but these nonsensical sounds have an important role to play. Babbling is an essential precursor to language development & like other development, follows some standard patterns.
In its most basic form, babbling is the beginning of learning the sounds that can be used in speech. Most babies start to babble around 6 months of age. Early babbling is made up of repetitive consonant-vowel combinations like “da-da-da” (canonical babbling). Babies begin experimenting with different sounds (and volumes!) and start paying extra attention to the sounds & words being used by those around them.
Typically, babies play around with /d/, /b/ & /m/ sounds – non-coincidentally these are the sounds that produce some of a baby's first words (mum, dad & baby). Likely due to infant development, the words for our parents are similar in languages across the world! (Mum is ‘Omm’ in Arabic, ‘Mor’ in Danish & “Matka” in Slovakian).
Around 10 months – babies start combining syllables, what’s known as ‘variegated babbling’ (e.g., “mamalata”) and around 12 months your baby begins to communicate with you & others using jargon and words.
Babies also know that babbling has a powerful effect on the adults around them. Researchers have found that when responding to a baby’s babbles, adults unconsciously modify their speech to be shorter, have more one-word replies & use fewer unique words.
Infants use their babbling to shape their own environments in ways that make learning easier. Babbling is not meaningless, instead it is a social catalyst for babies to better get information from the adults around them.
What can you as a parent do to help? Talk. Talk, talk, talk. It sounds too simple to be true, but the best thing to do for your little is to model good language. Treat your baby like a full conversation partner, until they are! Label everything you see, make funny sounds, talk your way through your day: commentate changing a nappy or what you can see when you look out the window. Talk until they can talk back, and then keep talking.
References: Elmlinger, Schwade & Goldstein (2019)