Essential Guide to Pre-Linguistic Skills: What You Need to Know

By Anuradha Karanam

Last Updated: May 21, 2024

Have you ever wondered how your baby begins to understand and communicate long before they say their first word? This fascinating journey starts with pre-linguistic skills, the silent precursors to speech and verbal interaction. These foundational skills encompass everything from your infant’s first coos and babble to the meaningful gazes they share when you talk or sing to them. Understanding these skills is crucial, as they lay the groundwork for all future communication.

Why are these initial skills so vital? Simply put, they form the bedrock upon which language is built. Before children can form words, they learn to interact with their environment and the people in it through sounds, facial expressions, and gestures. These are the first steps in a lifelong conversation with the world around them.

Understanding Pre-Linguistic Skills

Pre-linguistic skills are the early forms of communication that infants use before they start speaking actual words. These skills are essential as they lay the foundation for later speech and language development. Think of them as the initial tools your child uses to explore and interact with their world. By understanding these skills, parents can better support their child’s journey towards effective communication.

Let’s look at some of the key pre-linguistic skills:

  • Eye Contact: This is one of the first crucial skills your baby develops. By making eye contact, infants learn to focus on and recognize faces, setting the stage for more complex interactions. It’s a powerful way for your baby to bond with you and learn from your expressions.
  • Joint Attention: This skill involves your child learning to share attention with you toward the same object or event. It’s an important part of communication because it shows that your child is not only aware of their environment but is also interested in communicating about it with you. For instance, when your baby looks at a toy, and then at you, they’re inviting you into their world.
  • Smiling: Smiling is more than just a sign of joy; it’s a form of communication that infants use to interact with those around them. When babies smile in response to human faces or voices, they are engaging in social behavior that strengthens bonds and encourages further interaction.
  • Vocalizations: Before they can talk, babies begin to vocalize. These early sounds are a baby’s way of experimenting with their vocal cords and learning to control them, which is critical for later speech.

Each of these skills plays a vital role in your child’s overall development. They are the building blocks upon which language is built. As a parent, recognizing and encouraging these early interactions can help your child develop robust communication skills.

The Development of Pre-Linguistic Skills

Watching your baby grow and develop is one of the most exciting parts of parenthood. From their first smile to their first babble, each milestone is a step towards becoming a little communicator. Understanding when these pre-linguistic skills typically develop can help you better support and celebrate each new achievement. Here’s what you might expect from birth to 12 months:

  • Birth to 3 Months: Your newborn is already equipped to start communicating with you. At this stage, infants begin to make eye contact, especially during feeding or when you are very close to them. This early eye contact is a sign that your baby is starting to recognize familiar faces and associate them with comfort and security.
  • 3 to 6 Months: During these months, you’ll notice your baby starting to vocalize more. These sounds are more than just adorable coos and goos; they’re your baby’s way of experimenting with their voice. Smiling becomes more frequent and socially engaged, meaning your baby smiles not just in response to stimuli but also to interact with you.
  • 6 to 9 Months: This period is crucial for the development of joint attention. Your baby will begin to follow your gaze and point at objects, engaging you to share in their experience. Gestures become more purposeful during these months. Babies start to reach out, wave, and may begin to use simple gestures like shaking their heads for “no.”
  • 9 to 12 Months: By now, your baby’s ability to communicate through gestures is becoming more refined. They might start to use gestures to communicate wants and needs, like pointing to a bottle when they are hungry. Vocalizations also take on new forms, with babies starting to experiment with different sounds that mimic the tone and rhythm of speech.

Remember, these milestones are not strict deadlines but rather guidelines to help you understand the typical development trajectory. Each child is unique, and some may reach these milestones a bit earlier or later than others.

Signs of Healthy Pre-Linguistic Development

As your baby grows, their ability to communicate will evolve in exciting ways. While each child develops at their own pace, there are certain signs of healthy pre-linguistic development that parents can look for. These signs not only reassure you of your child’s progress but also provide delightful moments of connection between you and your little one. Here’s what to watch for as your child develops their communication skills:

1. Eye Contact:

From as early as a few weeks old, babies begin to look at faces and make eye contact. This is a fundamental aspect of communication, showing that your baby is interested in you and is paying attention. Consistent eye contact is a sign that your baby is engaged and ready to interact.

2. Smiling:

By around two months, babies start to smile in response to interactions with their parents or caregivers. This isn’t just adorable—it’s a key indicator of social development and happiness. A smiling baby is not only expressing joy but also participating in a basic form of communication.

3. Vocalizations:

Listen for coos, gurgles, and eventually babbling. These sounds indicate that your baby is experimenting with their vocal cords and beginning to understand the basics of verbal communication. Healthy vocal development often includes a variety of sounds that increase in complexity over time.

4. Responding to Social Interaction:

As infants grow, they should start to respond to social cues like your voice or facial expressions. This might mean turning their head when you speak, laughing at peek-a-boo, or quieting down when sung to. These responses show that your baby is not only hearing but understanding and reacting to social interactions.

5. Gestures:

From about six months of age, babies increasingly use gestures to communicate. These can include waving, pointing, and reaching out to be picked up. Gestures are a vital part of communication because they represent a child’s attempt to express their needs and desires before they can use words.

6. Healthy interactions:

Infants often involve a mixture of these signs. For example, a typical healthy interaction might see a baby making eye contact, smiling when you talk, and then babbling back at you in a playful conversation. Another example could be your baby pointing at a toy they want, then looking at you to see if you understand their request.

Observing these signs in your child can be incredibly rewarding and is a crucial part of nurturing their development. If you’re ever unsure about what to expect or if something seems amiss, remember that resources are available to guide you.

Read more: Speech and Language Milestones – 1 to 2 years

Signs of Healthy Pre-Linguistic Development

Age RangeExpected SkillsVisual Indicators
0-3 Months– Begins to make eye contact
– Smiles in response to interaction
– Coos and makes pleasure sounds
– Eye icon for eye contact
– Smiling face icon for smiles
– Sound wave icon for cooing
3-6 Months– Increased variety in vocalizations
– Laughs and squeals
– Recognizes familiar faces
– Begins to follow moving objects with eyes
– Musical note for vocal variety
– Laughing face for laughter
– Face icon for recognition
– Eye icon with arrow for tracking
6-9 Months– Babbles chains of sounds (e.g., “ba-ba-ba”)
– Begins to use gestures like waving or reaching
– Shows interest in social games like peek-a-boo
– Speech bubble for babbling
– Hand waving icon for gestures
– Smiling face with hand for games
9-12 Months– Points to objects of interest
– Imitates different speech sounds
– Responds to simple verbal requests
– Uses simple gestures like shaking head “no”
– Pointing hand icon for pointing
– Mouth icon for speech imitation
– Ear icon for responding
– Shaking head icon for gestures

Red Flags and When to Seek Help

Recognizing the signs of healthy development is as important as being aware of potential red flags. While each child develops at their own pace, certain delays in pre-linguistic skills can be early indicators that additional support might be needed. It’s essential to know these signs so that you can seek timely intervention, ensuring your child gets the help they need to thrive.

Signs of Delay in Pre-Linguistic Skills:

  • Lack of eye contact: By the age of 3 months, most babies can make eye contact. If your child avoids eye contact or rarely looks at your face, it might be worth discussing with a healthcare professional.
  • Minimal vocalizations: By 6 months, babies typically coo and babble. A quiet baby who doesn’t make many sounds might be experiencing delays.
  • Limited responsiveness: If your child does not respond to social interactions or seems indifferent to people around them, it could indicate a delay.
  • Poor joint attention: Difficulty in sharing attention on an object or activity with someone else by 9 months can be a concern.
  • Absence of gestures: By 12 months, most children use gestures like pointing or waving. A lack of these gestures can be a red flag.

Red Flags in Pre-Linguistic Development

SkillRed FlagAction
Eye Contact– No eye contact by 3 months
– Avoids looking at faces during interactions
– Consult a pediatrician
– Consider an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist
Smiling– Does not smile in response to interaction by 3 months
– Rarely shows expressions of joy
– Schedule a developmental checkup
– Discuss concerns with a healthcare provider
Vocalizing– Does not coo or make pleasure sounds by 4 months
– Limited or no babbling by 6 months
– Seek early intervention services
– Consult with a speech-language pathologist
Gesturing– No gestures (e.g., waving, pointing) by 10 months
– Does not respond to gestures by others
– Get a developmental screening
– Engage with early childhood intervention programs

Know more: Communication Difficulties in Children | What Results in Communication Problems and How are they Treated?

Activities to Enhance Pre-Linguistic Skills

Engaging with your baby in fun, simple activities can significantly boost their pre-linguistic skills. These activities are not just games; they’re opportunities to enhance your child’s communication abilities in a joyful and relaxed environment. Here are some practical tips and activities that you can incorporate into your daily routine to foster these essential skills:

1. Play Peek-a-Boo:

This classic game is beloved for a reason—it teaches babies about object permanence and encourages social interaction. When you hide your face and then reappear, saying “Peek-a-boo!” with a big smile, you’re also teaching your baby about anticipation and facial expressions.

2. Simple Imitation Exercises:

Babies love to mimic the actions of adults. You can encourage this by making various facial expressions, sticking out your tongue, or making sounds and waiting for your baby to copy you. Clapping your hands or waving can also prompt your baby to imitate these actions, enhancing their motor skills and understanding of social cues.

3. Joint Attention Activities:

Engage in activities that require you and your baby to focus on the same object. For example, you can hold a colorful toy near your face to draw your baby’s gaze to both you and the toy. Describe what you are seeing and doing, like shaking a rattle or squeezing a squeaky toy, to help your baby make connections between objects, sounds, and words.

4. Sing and Talk Frequently:

Narrate your day-to-day activities as you engage with your baby. Whether you’re folding laundry, cooking, or grocery shopping, talk about what you’re doing in simple terms. Singing songs, especially those with gestures like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” can also be a great way to stimulate your baby’s hearing and encourage them to mimic sounds and movements.

5. Encourage Response to Sounds:

Make noises with toys or objects and observe if your baby turns towards the sound. This not only improves their auditory skills but also helps them understand the source of sounds, which is crucial for later language development.

By incorporating these simple yet effective activities into your daily routine, you can provide your baby with a rich environment that promotes the development of pre-linguistic skills. These moments of interaction are not just building blocks for language but are also strengthening your bond with your baby.

Explore more: Teaching Kids Professions: Home based Speech Therapy Activity

The Role of Caregivers and Environment

The environment in which a child grows and the engagement they receive from caregivers play pivotal roles in their overall development, particularly in the acquisition of pre-linguistic skills. An enriched environment and proactive engagement are not just beneficial—they are essential components that stimulate a child’s early learning and communication skills.

Creating a Stimulating Environment

A stimulating environment is one that offers a variety of experiences that engage the senses and encourage exploration. This doesn’t necessarily mean having the latest toys or gadgets; rather, it’s about how you use everyday objects and interactions to enrich your child’s environment. For instance, colorful books, different textures to touch, and simple household items can all be fascinating through the eyes of a baby. These items provide sensory experiences that are crucial for cognitive development and help foster curiosity and attention.

The Impact of Engaged Caregivers

Engaged caregivers are those who are active participants in their child’s daily routines. This means being present and mindful during interactions, whether you’re feeding, bathing, or simply playing with your child. Talking to your baby about what you are doing together, singing songs, or even describing what you see during a walk in the park are all simple practices that contribute significantly to language and cognitive development.

For instance, during mealtime, describe the colors and shapes of the food, or express your actions out loud. These regular, day-to-day interactions are invaluable learning opportunities. They not only help build vocabulary but also enhance your child’s understanding of the world around them.

Daily Interaction as Learning Opportunities

Every routine and interaction presents a learning opportunity for a child. Regular routines help children predict what comes next, providing a sense of security and making learning more effective. For example, a bedtime routine that includes storytime can enhance language skills and provide a routine that children look forward to, making the process of settling down easier and more enjoyable.

Furthermore, caregivers who respond promptly and appropriately to a child’s needs are teaching them the basics of communication: that gestures, sounds, and expressions have meaning and can elicit responses. This two-way communication reinforces the baby’s attempts at interacting and encourages them to continue exploring these skills.

Professional Support and Resources

Navigating the early stages of your child’s development can sometimes raise questions and concerns that are best addressed by professionals. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) play a critical role in supporting and enhancing pre-linguistic development, ensuring that children build strong foundations for future communication skills.

Role of Speech-Language Pathologists

SLPs are trained to assess, diagnose, and treat speech, language, and communication problems. They work with children who show signs of delayed pre-linguistic skills to enhance their ability to communicate effectively. By employing targeted strategies and activities, SLPs support not only the child’s ability to understand and use language but also improve their social skills and self-esteem, which are crucial for later success in school and personal interactions.

Choosing the Right Professional

When selecting a speech-language pathologist, consider their experience with children and their specific needs. It’s important to choose a professional who makes you and your child feel comfortable and supported. Look for credentials and memberships in professional associations, which signify adherence to high standards of practice. Additionally, getting recommendations from other parents or your pediatrician can be invaluable.

While direct interaction with qualified professionals is key, there are numerous resources available for parents who wish to deepen their understanding of pre-linguistic development:

  • Educational Workshops and Webinars: These can provide insights into child development and practical tips on enhancing communication skills at home.
  • Online Resources and Reading Materials: Many reliable websites, including educational institutions and health organizations, offer a wealth of information that can be accessed freely. These resources often include guides, instructional videos, and articles tailored to help parents support their child’s development.

Know more: Navigating Online Speech Therapy for Non-Verbal Children: A Guide for Parents and Educators


Understanding and supporting your child’s pre-linguistic skills is crucial for their communication development. We’ve talked about how important these early skills are, how to spot healthy growth, and what signs might show that extra help is needed. Simple everyday activities can make a big difference in helping your child learn to communicate.

Remember, you have a big role in helping your child succeed in learning to talk and understand others. You can help them build a strong base for their future communication skills. At Wellness Hub, we are here to help you with more resources and connect you with experts. You’re not alone on this journey; we’re here to support you and your child every step of the way.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What are pre-linguistic skills in infants?

Pre-linguistic skills are communication abilities that infants develop before they start speaking. These include making eye contact, smiling, babbling, and using simple gestures like pointing or waving.

2. How can parents support their baby’s pre-linguistic development?

Parents can support their baby’s pre-linguistic development by engaging in daily interactive activities like talking, singing, and playing games such as peek-a-boo. Consistent engagement helps strengthen communication skills from an early age.

3. What is the role of pre-linguistic skills in early childhood?

Pre-linguistic skills form the foundation for later language development. They help infants learn how to interact socially and understand communication cues, setting the stage for spoken language.

4. Why are pre-linguistic skills crucial for language acquisition?

Pre-linguistic skills are crucial because they involve the basics of communication such as understanding and producing sounds, which are essential for learning to speak and communicate effectively as children grow.

5. At what age should a child develop pre-linguistic skills?

Children begin developing pre-linguistic skills from birth, and these skills continue to evolve up to the age of 12 months and beyond. Key milestones like eye contact and babbling should typically start to appear around 3 to 6 months of age.

6. What should I do if my child is not showing signs of pre-linguistic skills?

If your child is not showing typical signs of pre-linguistic skills by expected age milestones, it may be beneficial to consult with a pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist. Early intervention can address any underlying issues and support language development.

7. How do speech-language pathologists help with pre-linguistic skills?

Speech-language pathologists assess and treat children who may be delayed in their pre-linguistic skill development. They provide targeted strategies and activities to enhance communication abilities, focusing on improving both understanding and expressive skills.

8. Can early intervention improve pre-linguistic skills?

Yes, early intervention can significantly improve pre-linguistic skills. Programs led by professionals such as speech-language pathologists can help children who show signs of delays by providing personalized strategies that encourage language development.

9. What types of activities enhance a baby’s pre-linguistic skills?

Activities that enhance a baby’s pre-linguistic skills include interactive play like peek-a-boo, singing nursery rhymes, reading aloud, and engaging in lots of face-to-face communication. These activities encourage babies to listen, respond, and interact, boosting their communication skills.

10. How can I tell if my baby’s pre-linguistic development is on track?

You can gauge if your baby’s pre-linguistic development is on track by observing their responsiveness to social interaction, their use of gestures like pointing or waving, and their ability to make eye contact and babble. Regular pediatric check-ups and developmental screenings can also provide insights into their progress.

About the Author:

Anuradha Karanam

Speech-language pathologist (7+ years of experience)

Anuradha Karanam is a skilled speech-language pathologist with over 6 years of experience. Fluent in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, and English, she specializes in parent counseling, speech sound disorders, fluency assessment, and speech-language evaluations. Anuradha excels at working with children with developmental disorders, offering creative and effective therapy programs. Currently, at Wellness Hub, she holds a BASLP degree and is registered with theaa RCI (CRR No A85500). Her patience, ambition, and dedication make her a trusted expert in her field.

Connect with Anuradha to learn more about how she can help you or your loved one find their voice.

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