Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Introduction to Vocalizing 4 - 6 Months - Vocal Play Emergesclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

In the first three months, vocalizations largely consisted of sounds signaling discomfort - crying and fussing - and sounds related to feeding and breathing - coughing, burping, swallowing, and sneezing. In the four- to six-month period, however, infants gradually develop more control over their voices by playing with the sounds they can make. Continued successful communication development depends both on the ability of babies to send messages clearly and the ability of their caregivers to understand those messages. Vocal skills continue to develop in the context of interaction with others. For information on this critical context, please refer to Interacting.

Oral Control - The Foundation for Vocal Skills

Between four and six months, babies continue to use back-and-forth jaw movement when swallowing. This jaw movement will be used when swallowing until they are about three years old. Four- to six-month-old infants also continue to use two distinct sucking behaviors. Babies gain nutrition through breast or bottle by sucking but will also suck on fingers and objects. You may find that this second type of sucking really takes off when your baby is four- to six-months old. Indeed, researchers have found that four-month-old babies may spend up to four hours per day sucking fingers and objects! Both types of sucking help babies develop control of the muscles used to produce speech. Max's parents have noticed that pretty much everything Max touches goes straight to his mouth. He even seems to have some favorite "sucking toys" that give him comfort.

Vocalizations - Increasing Sound Control

During the first three months, the shape and size of the throat and mouth limits a baby's ability to make sounds. As they grow and develop control over the jaw, tongue and lips, babies become able to produce a greater variety of sounds. They also become better able to sense touch, pressure, and movement in their tongue tips and lips. All of that sucking IS good training!

Vocal Play

Vocal play is the main event in the four- to six-month period. Babies play with their voices changing the loudness (soft to loud), pitch (high to low), rate (fast to slow) and quality (screams to growls). As your baby discovers he or she can blow air through his or her lips, you may hear raspberries or wet trills of the lips. Avery made this discovery when she was about five months old. (Avery audio)

Speech-like Vocalizations

The first speech-like vocalizations, initially produced in the second to third months, tend to sound like "mmms" and "nnnns" with some short nasal vowel type sounds. Over time, these sounds develop into "cooing" and "gooing" (see Vocalizing 0-3 Months for additional information). Between four and six months, babies continue to "coo" and "goo" but also produce vowel sounds similar to the "aw" sound in "hot". Other vowel sounds, such as "ih" sound as in "hit", the "ae" sound in "date", and the "eh" sound in "pet" may be heard as babies develop control of their jaw. Between the ages of four and six months, these vowel sounds make up most of what babies say.

Babbling

By six months, infants often have gained enough lip control to produce lip sounds such as "p", "b", and "m". Avery's parents were thrilled to observe her making "buh-buh-buh" sounds for the first time at around five months of age. Her mother was especially excited when Avery used this newfound lip ability to say "muh-muh-muh", even though she realized that it would be a while before Avery was really saying "mama". (Avery audio) These strings of sounds are known as ‘babbling'. The sounds produced by infants during babbling may be different from those in their families' language. These unique sounds may be heard because infants and adults' throat and mouth are different in size and shape. Other reasons for the sound differences may be that infants are still practicing controlling their mouth movements or that they have not yet figured out which sounds are in their native language.

Vocalizations: Increasingly Expressive

All of the vocal play infants are doing in this stage has another interesting effect - they become better able to express emotion. Sustained laughter emerges around four months. There's nothing like a real baby chuckle! Max's poppy can't help but smile and laugh himself whenever Max laughs.

To indicate the need for attention, four-month-old infants are able to vary the volume, pitch and rate of their vocalizations. Beginning at five months, infants can use their voices to express pleasure, displeasure, satisfaction, anger, and eagerness. Avery is learning to roll over and sometimes get herself into awkward positions. Her parents are becoming used to hearing her call out in irritation at having rolled over onto a toy. (Avery audio)

Effect of the Language Environment

The sounds and sound patterns that babies hear affect the sounds that they produce. Babies stop producing sounds that are not found in their caregivers' speech. The home language also influences the frequency at which different sounds are produced. As French, English, Swedish and Japanese all contain similar sounds, babies learning these different languages will all produce the same types of sounds. However, some sounds are more common in these languages than others. As a result, the frequency with which babies produce these sounds will vary according to their frequency of occurrence in their home language.

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Parent Narrative: Language 4 - 6 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development