Teach your child to say ‘Mama’: Language skills targets for babies and toddlers

Apr 22, 2016


I realize that saying ‘Mama’ doesn’t sound like a major language skills goal, but let’s be honest, isn’t that what most mothers can’t wait to hear from their babies? And although I’m writing about ‘Mama’, the ideas in this post are just as relevant for ‘Dada’ or ‘Nana’ or whatever name you’re using, as a key figure in your little one’s life.

say mama square

Most babies will use the word ‘Mama’ or its equivalent at around one year old. But they don’t always use it totally accurately: they may use it for all women, or for Dad too. Working out exactly how to use the word right will come in time. Some little ones, though, will say this word much, much later, especially if there’s a language delay. I’ve got to admit, my oldest didn’t even use this word when he turned two! At that point I decided I’d had enough of humility, and I was going to take action. Here’s what we did:

Adapt peekaboo

Little kids love peekaboo, but has it ever struck you that teaching a language-delayed toddler to say ‘peekaboo’ is like teaching a (not very useful) tongue-twister? So why not switch to saying ‘Mama’? You hide your face, then pop up, pointing to yourself, crying out ‘Mama!’ with all the enthusiasm and smiles you can muster.

Of course, it’s likely that a little one will copy you and start labeling themselves ‘Mama’ while playing peekaboo. I admit that’s quite silly, but if they start to say the word ‘Mama’ this is still a step in the right direction!

Recruit help

Play hide and seek with your little one and another adult or an older sibling. You hide, then your child searches for you, while your helper asks ‘Where’s Mama? Where’s Mama? Mama! Maammaaaa!’ When they find you, they say ‘Mama! There’s Mama!’, and you join in too: ‘Here’s Mama…’ You get the idea! (This game was inspired by the video recommended below.)

For children who are learning their first words, or struggling with language tons of repetition is key. But you have got to stay animated and interesting for the repetition to work.

Say ‘Mama’

This one is obvious, but remember to talk about yourself as ‘Mama’, and remind others around you to do the same. If you always use ‘I’, and you don’t have other children, it would be easy for your child not to hear the word ‘Mama’ very often, because after all, who calls you that? We made this mistake with my first son! As you talk to your child throughout the day use lots of simple sentences including the word ‘Mama’: ‘Come to Mama’, ‘Mama loves you’, ‘Mama’s tired’ … and so on.

Once your child is using the word correctly then switch to using ‘I’ with more natural, grown-up speech.

Look at photos

Collect recent pictures of yourself and look at them with your child. On the wall, in an album, on the computer: it doesn’t matter, just make sure to do lots of simple labeling. ‘There’s Mama. Mama,’ etc. When your little one has grasped this word, you’ll naturally switch to saying ‘Me’.

Finally, take a look at this great video by SLP Laura Mize for more inspiration, and a fantastic demonstration of how to do the hide and seek game above.

If you’re the parent of a language-delayed child you’ve probably heard well-meaning people say, ‘Oh, he’ll be talking soon and then you’ll long for some quiet.’ You might hear other mothers complaining about hearing ‘Mama! Mama!’ all day long. I want to add a note of support for you, because it’s so tough when our little ones can’t communicate, and we’re desperate to hear something as simple as the word ‘Mama’. I read your stories everyday online, and I know I’m so fortunate that my children can talk to me. I never tire of hearing them call my name: that’s the truth. I also recognise that many of the ideas here you likely already do. Perhaps you were hoping for a secret, which sadly I don’t have. Talking is a long hard road for some children. All I can add is my respect for your strength, love and resilience as your children’s heroes. Good luck! I hope you get to hear the word you’re waiting for soon!

This post is number 8 in a series: Language Skills Goals and Targets for Babies and Toddlers. Next up will be a post on social words, practical words for everyday interactions, like hello, goodbye, thank you etc.

If you’ve found it useful, please like or share on Facebook or Pinterest using the buttons: thank you!

say mama

You can find more ideas and strategies for supporting your child’s communication skills, including hundreds of playtime activities, in my book, available on Amazon for $5.99.

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  1. ELENA
    April 22, 2016

    My eldest took quite a while to speak and we were a bit concerned, luckily he was fine, and in fact there are some days now where he will not stop talking!
    I do agree that repetition and talking to children a lot is the best way of helping him to speak

    • Kathleen
      April 22, 2016

      Similar here – they talk non-stop now and I love it! Thanks for visiting!

  2. Su {Ethan & Evelyn}
    April 28, 2016

    These are such great tips. My remembered Evelyn started talking and she copies everything my Ethan was saying. It ended up with “Daddy” being her first word. I was a little up-set by this – I wished I’ve had read your post earlier! lol! 🙂

    Thank you for linking up with us on #FabFridayPost

    • Kathleen
      April 29, 2016

      Thanks, Su! I think d is easier to say than m for lots of babies, so dads often win this one! We use ‘Aba’ for ‘dad’ and ‘baba’ was one of our kids’ first words 🙂 I think these words developed because babies say them early!

      • Emil
        October 10, 2017

        Hi Kathleen, you are exactly right. Baba and Dada are somehow easier to say – which was great for me, since I am Baba, but Mama was a bit upset for a while. That is long since over, now Adam is constantly asking for Mama all day long.

        Thanks for the write up! some really cool tips in here.

        Would it be alright to link to you on a post I have where I am trying to collect different activities for language development? I am asking because I would like to reuse the image from your post (but will not copy the text don’t worry). You can see my post here: https://www.adam-mila.com/milestones/language-development/speaking/

        • Kathleen
          November 12, 2017

          Hi Emil, thanks for commenting and for asking. Sorry for my slow response. By all means link, but I would rather you didn’t use the image. Thanks.


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