When our toddlers start talking it is one of the best days. As parents we all look forward to the days when we hear our child’s sweet voice start to imitate words. But what if your child isn’t imitating words? I’m sharing what could be contributing to this delay in imitating words as well as what you can do to help your child imitate words.
Typical Speech and Language Development
Learning to imitate words is a skill that all parents look forward to seeing their child master. For some toddlers imitating words is harder and takes a little more time. Toddlers typically say their first words anywhere between 10.5-12 months of age.
By two years old 50 words is expected but the average is around 300 or more words. Fifty percent of toddlers at the age of two have at least 300 words so they are learning to use words very quickly. However, long before this babies and toddlers are learning how to communicate by using eye gaze, reaching, turning away, gestures, noises, signs, and other non verbal gestures.
Babies and toddlers are also learning to understand words. Long before a toddler will say /ball/ they need to know, cognitively, that when they see a ball it’s a /ball/. They may look at a ball, point to a ball, or reach for ball when you say the word. That tells you they know that word. If they aren’t doing those skills then we aren’t quite ready to say the word.
If you’re looking for more info on early intervention services and how to start speech therapy you can read about that HERE.
Let’s Look At Milestones VS Average For How Many Words A Child Should Have
I think it’s important to look at the milestones of when children are saying words and how many words they should have at certain ages. I also think it’s important to look at the average because it’s very different than milestones and even pediatrician’s are missing this when parents come in worried that their toddler isn’t imitating words. Parents may hear that their child will catch up or that their child is fine and not to worry.
Let’s look at an example, if your toddler is 18 months and only saying about 10 words this can be of concern because the average toddler this age is saying around 50 words. I think it’s important to mention this because I see so many referrals come to me for 24 plus month old toddlers with limited use of words. When I ask the parents about their concerns almost all of them say their pediatrician told them not to worry and they will catch up.
Sure, some of them may catch up but often many of these children have a very difficult time catching up and/or their intelligibility (how well they are understood by others) is often low. The problem with this is that by the time a child is 24 months old and has limited vocabulary they are now having to play catch up.
But, and a big but, most of these toddlers coming to me end up having other areas that are holding them back from expanding their vocabulary and this makes it harder for them to produce new words and phrases. Many have trouble imitating words and learning to say new words for a number of reasons. We’re about to get to those possible reasons below but first let’s look at the chart below.
Chart Below So You See How Many Words Are Appropriate
Thanks to Speech Sisters IG page for this chart. You can check out their Instagram page HERE. Lots of great info.
Why Is My Child Having A Difficult Time Imitating Words
There can be many different reasons toddlers are having a hard time imitating words but I’m going to give you a few to review and think about. Maybe one of these reasons could be what your toddler is experiencing.
Difficulty with motor planning.
Motor planning is a function that is critical for speaking. In very simple language, our brain tells our muscles what to do and how exactly to do the movements from beginning to end (based on incoming sensory stimuli) and then our muscles do the work to produce the movements for words.
Some kids have a difficult time with motor planning tasks. You may notice that when you say /ball/ and expect your child to imitate the word they just can’t. It may take them extra time to process or they might move their mouth but can’t get the word out.
Maybe they move their mouth or try to produce /ball/ but they just can’t seem to get the sounds and movements quite right. You may also notice that your child isn’t really imitating sounds like vehicle and animal sounds, or even imitating gestures in songs or in movements.
This could be a sign that your child is having a difficult time planning the movements for speech sounds. You may also notice that your child seems to be able to approximate sounds a little easier when given cues from touch.
For example if you touch their lips during /p/ they actually close their lips to try to imitate. This is because their lips are receiving more awareness of where they are and how they are positioned by touch.
Typically kids learn speech through verbal (words) and auditory (hearing) means but some kids need extra stimulation through touch and movement. More on that below.
Joint attention is the ability to demonstrate shared attention. If you are singing or talking to a child that isn’t looking in your direction then most likely their joint attention is lacking. Joint attention is established when one alerts another to an object or person by eye gazing, reaching, pointing, looking at the object or the person.
We know children with Autism have a difficult time with joint attention but many kids have a difficult time with this too and even demonstrate joint attention in a different way. Mrs. SpeechieP on IG has a great post on eye contact and Autism you can see HERE.
How The Sensory System Impacts Joint Attention
If a child’s sensory system is disorganized you may see things like they really seem to play rough or require constant movement. You could also see the opposite and observe your child to seem really tired, has a difficult time waking up, seems sluggish, tired, or uninterested in typical activities. These children have a difficult time initiating and maintaining joint attention.
Think about this, you have your toddler on your lap facing you. You are singing a fun nursery song and your toddler is looking everywhere but you. When you go to pause for them to produce a sound they are still looking all around. You will most likely not hear any sounds and the activity will end.
What about if you are outside and an airplane flies over you. You say “WOW! Look at the airplane” and your toddler is busy picking grass. There is no joint attention so your toddler is going to have a difficult time learning the word airplane nor share in that communication exchange.
Now, picture this. You’re outside with your toddler and a big airplane flies over. You stop and say “WOW! Airplane!” Your toddler looks up and you say “ahhhhhh” and then your toddler looks at you and tries to imitate “ahhhh”. Both of those actions (looking up and then looking at you) are both actions of joint attention. It’s critical in language development.
This can look different for children on the Autism Spectrum. They may not make eye contact but they could still be attending. More info on Autism, joint attention, and AAC use can be found HERE from my good SLP friend’s IG page.
Delayed Gross Motor Development
Typically toddlers learn to roll, sit, stand, cruise, and walk before they talk. The brain focuses on one big task at a time so a lot of times we see imitation of words start to stall when toddlers are learning to walk. Not always, but sometimes.
We also see that when a toddler is learning to move around in their environment their joint attention may be harder to establish if you are trying to have them do a sitting activity. They want to move and explore and that’s what their focuses is on.
For toddlers that have delayed gross motor skills (larger motor skills likes rolling, sitting, standing, cruising, walking, etc) they are going to typically have delayed ability to use words as well. Why is that? It’s because in order to have adequate skills for speech a toddler must have the gross motor skills in place to support speech movements.
Speech and feeding are the most precise movements of them all and the body must be able to support them.
Example of How Gross Motor Skills Impact Imitating Words
Think about this. A baby cannot sit independently. Therefore they do not have the trunk(core) stability to hold themselves up which impacts their ability to stabilize themselves enough to produce an adequate amount of airflow (to get the sounds out). It also makes it difficult for them to concentrate on producing words because they are focusing on sitting.
If they can’t sit independently then they’ll also have a difficult time with using their hands/arms to play with toys, imitate gestures to songs, and movements. All which impact speech and language development.
Possible Tongue Tie, Lip Tie, and/or Buccal Tie
Wow Ya’ll! I cannot say how many times I have talked to friends and parents that have been worried about their toddlers inability to imitate and produce new words that have ended up having a tongue tie. I’ve also seen many toddlers and kids in speech therapy only to make very slow progress because this has not been identified.
Turns out their was a tongue/lip/buccal tie that was not identified and contributing to the difficulty with movements required for adequate speech skills.
So what is a tongue tie, lip tie, and buccal tie? Never heard of it? Or have you heard that it isn’t really a thing or even that it plays no role in speech and/or feeding development? Let me tell you if you have heard that then please ignore it and know that’s not true.
As a pediatric speech language pathologist I’m here to tell you that tongue ties most definitely play a role in speech and feeding development. A tongue tie is when there is a tight, thick, or short band of tissue tethers the bottom of the tongue’s tip to the floor of the mouth.
Different Type of Ties
There are different types of tongue ties and some are harder to notice than others. For example a posterior tongue tie is when the band of tissue is further back from the tongue tip and has a layer of mucosa over it.
This often goes unidentified and children end up having difficulty for years with speech and feeding. A labial tie is seen when the lip frenulum is tight between the upper lip and upper gum. Labial and tongue ties usually go together.
Buccal ties are less talked about but very much a concern when it comes to speech and feeding. A buccal tie is when there is a tight frenum in the cheeks. Therefore the cheeks have limited range of motion and can impact activities such as breast and bottle feedings to speech movements.
Impact of Having a Tongue Tie
One common thing I see in toddlers and kids that have these ties is jaw weakness. The jaw is the foundation for adequate speech and feeding skills. If the tongue is tied to the floor of the mouth too tightly then the tongue is not able to move in it’s full range of motion. We need the tongue to elevate and retract (move back in the mouth) for almost all speech sounds. We also need the tongue tip to elevate for some speech sounds and we need the tongue to elevate and retract for a safe and efficient swallow.
So many times, I see kids with unidentified tongue ties that have a history of the following:
- Breast. bottle feeding difficulties
- Difficulty moving onto table foods
- History of reflux (which was really a tongue tie and not actual reflux)
- Delayed speech and language skills
- Drooling past the age of 12 months
- Open mouth posture
- Unintelligible speech (difficulty understanding what child is saying).
I’ve also seen kids that become very picky eaters from this lack of movement and associated weakness. Think about it this way. If you can’t physically move your jaw/lips/tongue/cheeks adequately how are you going to chew food enough to swallow safely and eat efficiently? How are you going to imitate words let alone produce sounds, phrases, and sentences accurately? It’s pretty tough!
Lack of exposure and/or opportunities
Babies and toddlers are meant to explore their environment in many different ways. You may see this through batting at a mobile, tummy time, looking around the room, crawling, getting into everything, putting hands and toys in their mouth, listening and watching you talk to them and play with them.
The first year is just filled with growing and learning at such as fast pace. The first five years are the most crucial years in child development. Babies and toddlers are like sponges, they soak in everything and learn quickly.
When babies have medical complications that don’t allow for typical baby/toddler activities it can send their system into a fight or flight type mode. They are constantly in a protection mode and this can extend into childhood. They focus on survival and keeping themselves safe.
This mode also has an impact on primitive reflexes and often times I see reflexes that are retained which impact speech and language skills. This can impact speech and language develop and you will often see them have a difficult time imitating words until they are in a safe place medically and reflexes are integrated.
Experiences like tummy time, being able to explore in a safe environment, and face to face communication is crucial for language development. Talking to your baby throughout the day is one of the best things you can do! They need and want to hear your voice! That’s how we learn language.
Talk to your baby throughout the day
Play with your baby/toddler by imitating them and providing face to face interaction
Allow your baby to move and groove in a safe environment
Sing familiar and repetitive songs with gestures or movements
Have your baby practice tummy time in small increments throughout the day
Around 6 months start to wean baby off paci and allow paci at naps and bedtime only
Imitate your babies sounds, facial expressions, and movements right back to them when you hear them
If baby uses a gesture them model a word for the gesture. Pairing a word with a gesture is very helpful in helping their brains learn new words. For example, if your baby holds their arms up for you to pick them up, then hold your arms out and model /up/.
Don’t stay quite and not talk to your baby. Tell them about what you are doing, what they are doing, label objects, people, etc.
Don’t constantly keep your baby in a swing all day with limited stimulation
Sit in a bumbo seat for long periods of time throughout the day
Try to limit (after 6 months) a paci all throughout the day. We want them to be loud and talk in their baby talk. Instead of giving them a paci, try to redirect them to a play activity or objects they have an interest in.
Don’t ignore your babies gestures, movements, or sounds. Imitate them right back to them and then start to expand. For example, if they say /ahhh/ then you repeat /ahhh/ then you can wait for them to do it back to you. You may also want to expand and next time say /ahhh ooo/
Also, toddlers given iPads, phones, or electronics too early (typically before the age of 24 months) typically have fewer words. You may also see delayed social skills, decreased joint attention, and even negative behaviors.
As a speech language pathologist I think there is a great place for devices, but I also know how important face to face communication is and how powerful it is for learning to imitate actions and words. The trouble I have with giving such young babies and toddlers devices is that it’s a one way street to communication.
The child isn’t really having to do much in the means of communication. When we provide toddlers with face to face communication we are teaching them about communication in general from learning to read facial expressions to establishing joint attention to seeing how we move our mouth when speaking. They are also learning that communication is a two way street.
I know we live in a crazy techno world but try and resist the urge to give your baby a phone or screen at such an early age. Think about how many learning opportunities your child is missing when they looking down at a screen while at a store or when out on a walk. It’s more than you think!
What Can You Do To Help Your Child Imitate Words
First things first, meet your child where they are. If they are not yet imitating gestures or movements then start there.
Start with movements like imitating their movements or singing songs like Itsy Bitsy Spider and Patty Cake while doing hand movements. We want them to start imitating the movements.
Be an investigator. If your child is in speech therapy for some time and making slow progress then take a look at their overall development and see where they fall. For example, do they have medical complications, could it be a tongue tie, how are their motor skills, what about their sensory system?
If you have a mover and shaker then you will want to provide opportunities for your toddler to move and explore. You may want to incorporate movements with sounds. Often times trying to get a toddler to sit still won’t result in any words being produced. If you get them to move then most likely you will get some gestures and/or sounds from them.
If your toddler is getting frustrated because you don’t understand them signs may help. You want to give them a way to communicate for the time being. Modeling baby signs and even using an AAC device is a great option.
Signs are a bridge to helping our kids learn to talk. You always model the sign WITH the word and you can use hand over hand modeling to help your child use the sign.
Ask your speech-language pathologist about incorporating tactile and visual cues into therapy to give their mouth more stimulation and awareness for producing sounds and words.
Making silly faces in the mirror or using a mirror to help your child see their mouth moving.
Activities To Help Your Toddler With Imitating Words
Make sure they are establishing joint attention with you or the object. A child with Autism will most likely not look at you because it’s simply too much sensory stimuli but they may look at the object.
Play with toys or objects that your child is interested in (they have to be interested in the play)
Blow bubbles and have them pop them with their hands or with their finger (if they can point)
Stomp on the bubbles, run through them, or jump on them (you can model /pop/, /bang/, /hop/, /go/, /weee/ as they do the movements)
Pairing sounds/words with movements. When you see an airplane hold your arms out like a plane and say /ahhh/
Going down the slide, model /weeee/
When swinging hold them and say “ready, set……..pause and wait to see if they will say /go/ and if they don’t then you model /go/ for them
Repetitive and familiar songs and books will allow for multiple opportunities to learn gestures and words
Patting or banging on pictures while you label the objects in books help pair a movement with a word plus kids really like this
Don’t feel like you have to read books word for word. Take a book and simply label what you see or do it in a sing song type of voice
Making silly faces to each other or in the mirror (opening/closing mouth, popping lips, clicking tongue, making scary face with hands on cheeks saying /ooohhhh/
Playing peek-a-boo (hiding and popping out modeling /boo/ and take turns or if your toddler loves for you to hide and say /boo/ then make sure to throw your arms up in the air when you say /boo/
So Big! is a great game. Toddlers always love when I bounce them on my knees holding their hands singing “how big is ___ how big is ___…..SOOOOO…….BIG! and hold their arms ways up when we say BIG!
When playing with blocks or a blanket, place it on top of your head and model /ahhhhh choo/. Then have it fall off. Toddlers absolutely love this and think it’s hilarious. They will want to do it again and again. Have them take a turn and place on their head. They may just move their head to drop the block off but that’s a first step in imitation.
Using silly sounds and exclamatory words. Sounds/Words such as /yay/, /uh oh/, /mmmmm/, /yum yum/, /boo/, /wee/, /ahhh/, /brrrmmmm/, /woo/, /oh no/, /no no no/. /hi/ (hi is great for playing peek-a-boo too)
If you enjoyed this article hop on over to learn about some additional fun speech therapy activities.