Look who’s talking

Hearing your little one’s first word is a special moment. But why are ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ commonly said first – and can you influence what your baby will say?


No matter how much you encourage your little one to say ‘mama’, out pops ‘dada’ first. You’re thrilled that your baby’s started babbling – and Daddy’s obviously delighted – but there’s a bit of you that thinks: “I spend more time with our little one, how come Dad gets the glory?”


That was the case for mum-of-two Lisa Lathane, 34, from Hertfordshire. “My eldest said ‘dada’ first and I have to admit that I felt a touch of jealousy. But my youngest said nothing but ‘mama’ for ages, so it all balanced out,” she says.

We wanted to find out about your babies’ first words, so, along with our friends at LeapFrog, we ran a survey asking about your little ones’ talking. ‘Dada’ might have topped our poll of first words, but it’s not a preference for daddy but the natural movements of your baby’s mouth that shapes his babble.

Why is ‘dada’ your baby’s first word?

Language acquisition researcher Judit Gervain, from CNRS-Paris Descartes University, explains: “‘Dada’ is not necessarily a universal first word. 
It might be the case for some babies, but not for others. Some might say ‘mama’ first. But if there’s any reason behind it, it’s that the sound ‘duh’ is produced by closing the mouth, which then is released in a sudden burst, like a click. It’s just easier to produce.”

Dr Kerstin Meints, developmental psychologist and head of the University of Lincoln’s BabyLab research centre, agrees. “Those sounds – ‘duh’, ‘muh’ and ‘ah’ – are the first sounds that a baby can produce,” Kerstin says. 
“It has to do with the way your baby’s mouth is shaped, how he can move his lips and tongue, and then how he can touch part of the palate in the mouth to make sounds like ‘muh’, ‘duh’, ‘kuh’. And the vowel that a baby can produce early on is ‘ah’, so that’s simply how it comes together.”

Babies like repetition

The popularity of ‘dada’ and ‘mama’ may also 
be because our brains recognise certain repetition patterns, says Judit, who was involved in a 2008 study that looked at the way newborns responded to made-up babble. “Repetitions are something really special. 
Not only were babies able to distinguish little words that had a repetition [such as ‘mubaba’] from little words that didn’t have a repetition [such as ‘mubage’], but also the language area of the brain responded more to these repetitions,” 
Judit explains. “It seemed to us that repetitions were something that the brain easily picked out, and that even newborns could detect.”

When it comes to baby babbling, many languages have similar repetition patterns, such as ‘dada’ in English, ‘papa’ in Italian and ‘tata’ (grandpa) in Hungarian. “In the beginning, 
all babies babble in the same way. Whatever their native language is going to be, they start by producing the simplest sounds – ‘tuh’, ‘duh’, ‘muh’,” says Judith.

Your baby’s babbling

You might think your baby recognises you as mama, but it’s not actually the case during early babbling. Not until your baby’s around 6 months does he start to understand what the word
really means. Kerstin says: “From 6 months,
he can understand ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ if you show him two pictures of Mummy and Daddy. If you say ‘look at Mummy’, he can look at the right one, but that’s comprehension, not talking.” Judit agrees. “Babbling has no meaning attached to it, so even if your baby says ‘dada’ first, it doesn’t actually refer to Daddy,” she says.

What’s normal?

Over a third of you told us that your baby started babbling before 3 months, while another 40 per cent joined in by 5 months. When it comes to talking, 43 per cent of babies had said their first word by the time they were 7 months old, and 58 per cent of you said your tot started speaking in sentences by 20 months. “But it’s important for parents to know that there’s much individual variation between children,” says Kerstin.

Surprisingly, there are no guidelines on early vocabulary. “We don’t know how many words to expect at 12 months or what’s the typical range,” she says. This is about to change, as Kerstin’s involved in a study that begins in January.
“At the end of it, there’ll be norms that can be used for health practitioners like speech therapists. We’ll also have a free online database where parents can see what the normal range is. It won’t be ‘at 12 months your child has to speak 50 words’ because that’s not right,” she adds.

Encouraging your baby to talk

Despite your efforts to the contrary, if your tot’s going to say ‘daddy’ first, then that’s what he’ll do. Kerstin says: “I don’t think you can influence what babies say first, and it would be unethical to carry out that type of research. What your baby will talk about first is what interests him.” ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ will be popular, along with the things he sees around him. “It’ll be the dog on the street, a bird, bath time or peekaboo,” she adds.

The best way to encourage your baby’s vocabulary is to talk to him. “Interact with him, read books with him, say good old nursery rhymes and sing songs,” says Kerstin. “Also, vary the phrasing. So don’t just keep saying ‘look, truck’. Say ‘can you see the truck?’, ‘is that a nice truck?’. If the word occurs in different frames,
it’s easier for him to pick it up.”

Mums’ stories

“Jacob said ‘dada’ first. I’ve been trying to get him to master the ‘ma’ sound by putting his hand to my mouth. He hears ‘dada’ so often during the day – ‘Dada will be home soon’ – so I try to refer to myself as ‘mama’ but it feels a bit weird!”

Amy Clark, 29, from Staffordshire, mum to Jacob, 10 months

“Both of my little ones said ‘dada’ first. I tried to encourage Heidi to say ‘mama’ by mouthing it on a balloon and letting her feel the vibration – but it turns out that’s an old wives’ tale that doesn’t work!”


Kirsty Madew, 26, from Stockport, mum to Heidi, 3, and Alfie, 2

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