Do you wish your toddler would talk more than they are? Are you unsure if your child is on track or a little behind? I talk with a lot of parent’s of toddlers that are wondering what they can do to get their child to talk more. As a pediatric speech-language pathologist I’m giving you 5 simple things you can do daily to help your child talk more.
When Do First Words Come?
First words come anytime between 10.5 months-15 months. As you can see this is kinda a wide range of what’s considered typical when it comes to speech and language skills at this age. I’ve seen some toddlers as early as 10 months say their first word and I’ve seen some kids closer to 11-12 months say their first word. Basically, children learn to talk at different times and it depends on what is going on around them too.
Things that impact a child’s ability to use words are things like:
- How often children hear others talk around them during the day
- How someone responds to a child when they do make a sound or produce a word
- Other skills a child is learning like walking or crawling
- A child’s natural ability to learn
When babies and toddlers are busy walking and learning to move you may see words plateau for a bit but typically once your toddler starts to use words you should see those words increase consistently. This means that every week you see your toddler learning and using more words. By 24 months your toddler should be using a minimum of 50 words and starting to put two words together. This is just a milestone that most pediatricians give parents. It’s important to note the average 24 month old actually has a couple hundred words they are using.
Also, it’s important to note that at this young age when toddlers are first learning to talk they are not going to be produced perfectly. It will be more of a word approximation such as /do/ for dog or /baba/ for bottle. As long as your child is producing these approximations the same way when they want or see that object or person than you know that is the word for that object/person.
When Should You Worry About If Your Child Is Having A Difficult Time Talking
I always tell parents to follow their gut. Always trust your gut. If you are wondering if your child should be talking more than they are then most likely you are right. If you go to the park or a play date and you see your child doesn’t use nearly as many words on a daily basis as other peers their age then you should follow your gut and explore help. Most likely you are right. Moms (and Dads) have this parental instinct and we just know our children better than any other person.
Below are some signs that your child is having a difficult time learning to talk:
- Their ability to understand is way higher than the words they are using to talk (they always understand words first then use them but when there is a big difference in how well they are understanding and using words this should be looked into)
- They seem like they know what they want to say but have a difficult time getting the word out of their mouth
- Your child is frustrated and throws tantrums when you don’t understand what they are trying to say
- Your child has not used skills like showing you what they want, pointing to desired objects, used gestures in movements or songs
- 18 months and has less than 20 words
- Your toddler is 24 months and has less than 50 words
- 24 plus months and not putting two words together
- Your toddler is mainly using nouns and not a lot of other variety of words such as verbs, pronouns, adjectives, etc. (Their first words are nouns but from there they expand to using different parts of speech).
- Child has stayed at the same amount of words for while and you don’t see them using new words on a weekly basis
- Your toddler is talking but you understand absolutely nothing they are saying (more on this below)
- For other reasons your child may not be talking read this article
So How Much Should I Understand of My Child’s Talking?
Let’s start at 24 months. You (the parent/caregiver) should be able to understand about 50% of what your child is saying. Others that aren’t around your child often may understand less than this.
If you jump to 3 years old you (the parent/caregiver) should be able to understand about 75% of what your child is saying. Others may have some difficulty but for the most part they understand what your child is saying.
Above 3 and 4 you (the parent/caregiver) should be able to understand most of what your child is saying and so should other people that aren’t typically around them.
Sure, their speech may not be perfect and that’s because their speech sounds are still developing. Some speech sounds are typically developing and will be typically outgrown by around age 3.5 years. Some speech sounds are not considered part of typical speech development and usually require therapy to remediate.
What To Do If Your Child Is Not Talking Yet or Has Very Few Words
First, I think it’s important to always look at the whole child. Is there anything going on with them that could be impacting their ability to use words to communicate? Are they not crawling or did they skip crawling, are they 18 months and just now starting to walk? What about, do they have medical components or are they in other developmental therapies?
What’s going on in their environment? Is there enough or too much stimulation? Do they hear people talk to them? Do people respond to them when they make sounds or use words? Have they had a history of ear infections and PE tubes? The list can go on but it’s so important to look at the whole picture to get a better idea of what could be impacting your child’s ability to talk.
But what if you just don’t know and feel unsure? There is a little voice inside your head saying you feel like something is off? Go to your pediatrician. Ask for a speech therapy evaluation. At any age you can do this. You don’t have to wait and see if they catch up. Early Intervention is always best. As a parent myself I would rather know sooner than later if my child needed a little help in the beginning. Waiting until they are behind is only harder to play catch up.
Below I’m going to give you a 5 things you can start doing at home right now to help your child talk more:
When you offer your child a choice (even if you know what they want) you are setting them up to communicate their wants/needs with you. They may start off by pointing to the object and you label it and give it to them. They are learning that when I point I get it. When they hear you label the object they just pointed at then they are also learning the word of that object.
In the toddler brain, it is all about independence too, right? Whew, toddlers can wear on you with their independence and some are far bigger seekers of independence than others. But offering choices allows toddlers a sense of control and independence too which is likely to decrease frustrations and tantrums. It allows them to be apart of the choice.
You want to keep choice offering simple. Don’t overwhelm a toddler with multiple choices or too many choices too. For example, when it’s time to go outside and play you may offer them “ball or bike?” or “do you want the ball or the bubbles?” while you hold up the ball and bubbles. If you are reading then you can offer a choice of two books ” animals or cars?” Let them pick which one they want.
If they are just pointing to the desired object, then you are always labeling the object. Eventually you can start to produce the first sound and see if they can imitate it. Make sure to give them time to process what you are saying and figuring out how to say it too. For example, you say “do you want animals or cars?” and your child chooses animals then you model “animals…/a/ /a/. So you say the word then model the first sound for them. Wait and see if they imitate you.
2.Model sounds and words with gestures
Pairing a gesture/movement with a word is helpful for the brain to learn that word and also helps with facilitating expressive language (using words and gestures to communicate). I love to pair gestures with words because it’s fun for kids. Kids enjoy being silly. They want to move their bodies and explore to so this is a perfect activity for them.
Say your child is playing with animal toys or vehicles. You can hold the plane in the sky and move it all around saying /ahhhhh/. Kids love to imitate this. If you are playing with animals you can imitate the cow by bringing it to your mouth and saying /mooo/ so they can see your lips round for the word. Maybe you are playing with the animals or cars and you hide one and it pops out to say /BOO/! Having the animal or car pop out while saying boo is something your child can also do by taking turns.
While outside and your toddler is running you can say “ready, set…..go!” and have them run when you say go so they are pairing the word /go/ with movement. You can do this with a ball “ready.set….go!” and have them throw the ball when you say /go/. If you are playing with bubbles stomp on the bubbles while saying /pop pop pop/ or “ready.set……blow!”
For more speech therapy activities you can do at home with your toddler read this article.
3. Using Signs With Words:
As a pediatric speech-language pathologist I typically use signs WITH the word I’m teaching the child. I always use the word with the sign so the child learns what the word is when they use the gesture. Eventually the sign fades and the child is using the word instead. Also, signs with words give children the ability to communicate when the words just aren’t there yet. It decreases frustrations, tantrums, and teaches them how to communicate effectively versus screaming, whining, etc.
A couple examples of how you would use this are to always use the word with the sign. Use signs/words that are functional and you can use throughout your daily routine. Some examples of signs you may use are: eat, drink, more, all done, please, ball, go, bubbles, and help. Let’s just start with these to give you a few ideas.
You can read more about signs HERE. For now I’m going to give you some ideas for how you can start using these. Expect that your child will only use the sign for now then they will start using the word with the sign then the sign will/should fade. For some children you may need to use hand over hand (you placing your hand over theirs) and making the sign for them to start with.
Using The Sign EAT
Let’s look at /eat/ to start with. Say it’s about to be snack time and your child is starting to get hungry. They start getting whiny like they typically do before this time and you kinda know they want to eat. You would then look at them (and make sure they are looking at you) and you say /eat/ along with using the sign. If they don’t do anything you take their hand and move it towards their mouth and make the sign for them while saying /eat/. “Let’s go eat!” and then you immediately get their snack.
You can also use this sign with the word for every time they eat a snack or meal. If you do this consistently you are working on this skill/word at least 5 times during the day. Repetition is key! Soon they will be saying “eat” when they are hungry.
Using The Sign HELP
Let’s look at another example /help/. Many kids become frustrated when they need help but they don’t know how to ask for help or what to do at times. This can create some major meltdowns and once your child is in the state of a meltdown you can forget them learning anything because their brains are not in a state to learn then.
So, say your child is stuck or can’t do something and they are becoming whiny or frustrated you can look at them and say /help/with using the sign. Quickly take their hand and do the sign with saying the word then help them. I like to say “help” with the sign then say “I’ll help you” while we are fixing whatever it is.
Once they get the hang of using these signs and words you can offer a choice. Say you’re child is consistently saying “eat” then you can offer a choice “apple or banana”. Or you could say “more or all done”.
Notes For Giving Choices
One important thing to note is that sometimes when children are learning choices, they aren’t quite sure what they really want and we don’t want to confuse them more. So if your children points to apple then we need to put the other choice away and give them the apple. If they are upset you can say “you chose apple. here is your apple”. You can even move away from the other choice like going to the table or taking them outside so it decreases the chance of a meltdown. If we go back and forth between objects it creates confusion and frustration and even your child may not realize what they really want.
4. Putting Toys Away or Out of Reach
As a mama to two and a pediatric speech language pathologist I totally get this one but it’s worth mentioning and without any judgement at all. We all have a lot of things, right? My kids have way too much stuff and sometimes I feel likes it’s everywhere. Especially when they were little and we had toys in every single room. Whew. That gives me anxiety even thinking about it. We still have too much stuff and I’m still constantly purging things.
But, something I see a lot of is when kids have toys at their fingertips they don’t have any reason to communicate what they want because it’s right there and they can go get it. Or, as parents we are right there at their every need without allowing them time to talk and tell us they want to go outside or give them time to go to the fridge to signal their hungry. We are on such tight schedules that we just go and do all the time.
A couple easy tweaks you can make at home will help your child start to communicate what they want with you. Simply taking a couple of their toys and putting them away or on a shelf where they can’t get to them but they can still see them. Make sure it’s on a shelf where the child can’t try to climb on and tip over. Safety first, right?
Going A Step Further When Putting Toys Out of Reach
Let’s say you know your child is going to want to play with his ball and bubbles at some point in the day. Put those two things somewhere where he can see them but can’t get to them. He may start to stand in front of where they are. He may start to whine, etc. This is when you come over and point the ball and say “ball”. If this is what he wants you can then say “ball you want the ball. Let’s go play with the ball”. There, he’s now heard the word ball 3x in just a couple seconds. He’s also learning the word.
You can go a step further and do a couple different things. You can say “ball” then use the sign for it. Use hand over hand or maybe by now he knows the sign and he can sign it back. There he has requested ball! Say “ball” then hold it at your face and model the beginning sound /b/ or /ba/ for ball and see if he can imitate you.
You can place his water out of reach (but still in sight) and you can either model “drink” or “water” or “milk” before giving it to him. Simplify and say /wawa/ for water and /mi/ for milk but you ALWAYS want to then say the word pronounced correctly after that. You are just breaking it down to a simpler form for him to imitate. If your child is still learning you may want to start with “drink” since it is more general and then you can learn water and milk from there.
5. Stop Asking So Many Questions
OMG I could go on and on about this. I’m guilty of it too but I’m also very aware if I’m doing it too much. Sure, we want to ask our children questions but sometimes we bombard them with too many and it limits their ability to come up with their own ideas. When thinking about helping our children learn to talk this is something that we need to be aware of. First, I want to tell you there is a lot that goes into processing and answering questions.
Your child has to hear you, process the sounds they hear, process what you are saying/asking then it sends the message to another area of the brain where the child then has to decide what the answer is and how to respond both from a cognitive, language, and motor planning standpoint. So if you wonder why you are asking “what’s this” over and over again with no response then here is your answer. It’s simply a lot for a little one to process and often times we don’t give them enough time to respond.
Here are a few things you can do instead of asking so many questions:
- Instead of saying “what’s this” You can say “I see a ___” . Pause and maybe point to the object so they can fill in the blank
- Instead of saying “what do you want” You can say “do you want ball or bubbles” while holding up a choice of the two
- Instead of saying “where did it go” You can say “The ball is here” or “The ball is UNDER the chair”
- Instead of saying “are you swinging?” You turn it into a comment “You are swinging so high”
- Instead of saying “what’s that?” You can say “Look, it’s a dog?”
- Instead of asking “do you want milk” You can say “Milk” or “More milk”
- Instead of saying “do you want mommy to take a turn” (as your child gives you the toy car) You say “my turn” then “your turn” when you give it back to them
- Instead of asking “Do you want me to pick you up” (as your child holds their arms up to you) You say “UP! You want UP” OR “UP. Pick me up”
- Instead of saying “how do you get up there” You can say “You climb up to the top”
Hopefully you get the idea by now for how to respond. I’m not saying questions are bad. They aren’t bad at all if we are using them appropriately and at the right developmental level. We need to ask and answer questions appropriately to communicate with others. But when your child is learning to talk, too many questions might make it more difficult.
When thinking about asking questions you want to think about the types you are asking, the level at ease to answer these questions, and what questions are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age and language skills.
Here is a list from easiest to the hardest types of questions:
Once again, it’s okay to ask questions but balance them out with comments. For example, you will want most of your talking to be commenting, labeling, narrating what you are doing, allowing your toddler to make choices, and then mixing in a simple and age appropriate question in there. Less asking questions and more about helping your toddler come up with their own ideas and/or giving them the tools to learn new words and eventually how to answer and ask their own questions.
I also love this short but valuable article by ASHA that shares how parents can foster their toddler’s expressive language skills. You can check it out HERE.
If you feel like you may need more help with helping your little one talk more this article will help guide you through the process. It’s never too early to start early intervention. It’s the key to success!