The toddler stage is full of discovery, learning, and plenty of development and growth–from crawling in infancy to taking those first few steps into toddlerhood. One of the most notable developmental steps little ones take is the transition from baby coos and babbles to words and sounds as they start to imitate your speech.
However, some kiddos struggle to form those first few words, causing them to hold off on speech for a bit longer than you’d expect. We all worry about our kids and if they’re developing at the rate they should be. And since speech is such a huge milestone, it's normal to wonder if your toddler’s speech is delayed, especially if we start comparing our toddlers to kids of the same age (or even to where our older kids were at that age!).
This was definitely what happened to us! My niece and my son are just two days apart in age. While visiting them recently, I noticed that, while my little guy wasn’t saying much, his cousin was quite the chatterbox. She was spouting off word after word with impressive clarity. And all while doing it in the sweetest little baby voice.
I started to wonder if my son's speech was delayed--especially as I started to look back and see how early my daughter spoke. I started asking myself ALL the questions worried moms ask. Should he be talking more by this point? Why isn’t he saying as many words as his cousin? Do I need to talk to my pediatrician or seek help from a speech pathologist? Although I KNOW that every baby is different, it was difficult for me not to compare and worry.
Luckily for me, my sister studied communicative disorders in college and recently got a job as a communication specialist, working side-by-side with a speech language pathologist. She helps to complete communication evaluations on children and teaches parents how to interact and respond to their kids to help encourage and prompt speech! So if you’re worried about your child’s speech, keep reading for all the info, tips, and tricks to help your toddler develop their communication skills!
Infant & Toddler Speech Basics: What’s Normal?
Babies experiment with making sounds from birth. These sounds will progressively become more complex as they age and interact with you.
In the early stages, kids will imitate your sounds, but most of these sounds don’t hold much meaning. (So if your baby is saying dada at 6 months, don’t worry mom–there’s still a chance that “momma” will be your little one’s “official” first word. At such a young age, this is most likely just experimentation with sound rather than an association with a person.)
As children near their first birthday, they will begin associating words with specific objects or people. This is likely when the first word will appear! As you take your baby for well checks, you will notice that your pediatrician will start asking if your child has started talking around this time. They want to ensure your child is on track based on child development guidelines.
However, don’t let these questions make you anxious. If your child isn’t talking quite yet, just answer honestly. Your pediatrician sees a WIDE range of abilities every single day, and although there are developmental milestones a baby should be reaching (according to child research), they understand that every baby is different. It’s just something to keep an eye on so they can watch their progress over time.
Note: As parents, we may focus solely on concrete speech as an indicator that kiddos are on track. However, there is more to a child’s communicative development than just speech. These include a child’s ability to understand language (receptive language), his/her ability to talk or communicate their needs (expressive language), and their ability to focus (attentiveness).
Your child may be more advanced with their receptive language and may take longer to develop expressive language and vice versa. That’s totally okay!
Here is a general guideline to follow to see if your child is hitting speech and language milestones.
Why Isn’t My Child Talking?
There can be a lot of reasons why a toddler or young child may not be talking! Here are some things to take a look at:
Child’s communication needs are already satisfied: This means that a child’s needs are already being satisfied by the nonverbal cues or gestures they are using to get what they want. Another common reason for this is that another person is talking for them, preventing the toddler from needing to speak to get what they want. This is common in our home. In my attempt to prompt my son to speak, my daughter often speaks over him, eliminating his need to talk to get what he wants.
Hearing difficulty: Although they will check a baby’s hearing before they leave the hospital, hearing can still be impaired as a child ages. This can be due to ear infections or other illnesses that may affect hearing. If your baby isn’t hearing well, it's going to make language development difficult.
Stubbornness: We all know how stubborn children can be! And toddlers may be the most stubborn of them all (but teenagers are definitely up there as well!). If your child doesn’t want to speak, they’re not going to. Sometimes in our own worries, we try to push our kiddos to talk or answer to us. For example, if you go to give your toddler a snack, you may think that waiting to give them the snack until they say "please" or "yes" will get them to talk. But in actuality, this may put unnecessary pressure on them, causing them to feel overwhelmed and stressed.
Intellectual disability or delay: There are several disabilities that could result in a speech or language delay, such as autism, cerebral palsy, or developmental expressive aphasia (which is a child’s inability to translate thoughts into verbal speech). Disabilities will range in severity from child to child, so it’s essential to work side-by-side with a trusted doctor if you’re concerned your child may have a disorder. There are lots of great interventions and treatments to help children who may be suffering from these things.
Signs of Speech Delay
As I mentioned previously, communication involves much more than just verbal speech. It also includes attention and comprehension. That’s why, when looking at speech delays, it’s important to look at all aspects of communication. Just having an absence in one level of communicative development does not mean your child is delayed. They may just be developing more quickly in one aspect of communication than another.
For example, my daughter spoke early on, but she didn’t seem to comprehend the words that I’d say to her. Conversely, my son has incredible comprehension, while his speech has been just a little bit behind.
Oftentimes, a child needs to have a delay on multiple levels before you need to be overly concerned.
Signs of delay in:
Receptive Language: Your child cannot follow simple instructions when given, he/she does not seem to associate meaning to specific objects or people, child often misunderstands/misinterprets what you say often, etc.
Expressive Language: Child relies on gestures to get needs fulfilled, child refuses to speak when prompted or is not even attempting to speak, your child is not imitating sounds you make (animal sounds or simple words), etc.
Attention: Your child isn’t able to focus on simple tasks, your child doesn’t seem to hear you when you talk, your child gets bored of his/her toys or activities very quickly, your child doesn't stay engaged with you when you try to speak to him/her, etc.
Signs of delay by age:
When to seek additional help:
If your child is showing several communicative delays in multiple categories (expressive language, receptive language, or attention).
If your pediatrician is worried and notices something that’s not normal.
If they are not reaching a milestone by the end of the range suggested to achieve that skill by.
If a child seems to be regressing. (However, keep in mind that sometimes babies will stop talking for a while when working on another skill. Both of my kids went through this and soon started talking again.)
If you feel your child is behind, seek an early intervention speech specialist for help! They can provide an AEPS test and will evaluate a child's play skills/attention span, receptive language, and expressive language. There’s no harm in doing so, and early intervention is often key to prevent the speech delay from impacting other levels of your child’s development.
How to Encourage Speech in Young Children
If your child is a bit behind, it’s probably not anything you did or didn’t do! But there are things we can try that may encourage speech and reinforce their understanding! Sometimes we just need to change how we interact, how we provide language input, and how we respond to kiddos as they’re learning to communicate!
In my sister’s work with young children, she’s noticed that many parents assume that when their children are behind with developmental milestones in communication, they need to provide more language input. She stated that, “In reality, communication begins with interaction. Interaction is the key to developing better communication skills. Interaction should come first, language input should come second.
Interaction refers to enjoyable natural everyday interactions between parents and children. Parents are focused on words but we may be missing enjoyable interaction between parent and child that provide that foundation for language learning. Interaction skills are the foundation for learning to communicate.”
*The following quotes in this article come from an interview with my sister, who is a communication specialist at Utah State University.
How can I improve my interactions with my child?
Show interest in what they’re interested in and play together often: “Children who are not saying words often respond well when you imitate their actions, sounds or words. If you start playing how they are playing it encourages them to keep the interaction going for longer.” Follow your toddler's lead and let them choose what they want to play, and then get down on the ground and play with them!
Make plenty of eye contact and offer nonverbal cues: This shows you are interested in them and want to interact. Making eye contact and using nonverbal cues as you play and interact throughout the day also allows you to show them how communication works. For example, let’s say you are throwing a ball with your child and saying “go” every time you toss it. After a few times, you can look over at your child before tossing it, raise your eyebrows, and look excited. The child will notice your nonverbal signal and may try to say “go” because you signaled to them it was their turn. Interacting in this way when playing teaches kids that communication works by interacting and responding.
Eliminate distractions: Screens are a huge distraction. If we are on our phone all the time or if the TV is always playing in the background, kids may struggle to focus on you and you may struggle to be in the present moment. This makes it near impossible to provide the quality interaction they need.
Schedule playdates: This provides kids with the chance to see, hear, and engage with kids their own age. If the other children have already started speaking, this is even better. When visiting our family last month, I noticed that on the days my son spent more time with his cousin of the same age, he had a greater desire to talk. It was as if he was trying to imitate her.
2. Language Input:
Kids will never learn to speak if they don’t hear language. Although babies and toddlers may not be speaking yet and cannot respond to you in full-blown conversation, providing exposure to plenty of speech will help build their understanding, comprehension, and vocabulary. Then when they are ready to imitate and engage, they will be ready to do so.
How to improve language input:
Let kids hear your voice often: One easy way to do this is to talk about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. If you’re making their lunch, talk about what you’re making for them.
Offer comments as you play and interact: “Commenting is when you say a short phrase or sentence that matches what the child is doing or saying at that very moment. You comment without asking a question and then you wait to see if they take a turn.”
Be simple when teaching new words: Just say one word when trying to teach a new vocabulary word. Say the word three times to help kids associate meaning with the object.
Don’t use made-up words or “baby talk”: Many of us moms may default to the term “wa-wa” when referring to water. Although this may be how a toddler first says the word (which is totally okay), we should always use the proper terms when providing language input. That way they will repeatedly hear the correct pronunciation, and they can continue to work on it as they develop the ability to produce more sounds.
3. Your Response
How we respond to our children is a big deal. Not responding in ways that are encouraging can cause them to shut down. And sometimes, our response is not about providing more language input, but instead giving them time and just listening.
How can I improve how I respond to my child?
Provide “wait time” and listen: When in school, I hated when I felt rushed to provide an answer or response to a question. The same thing happens with toddlers and young children. If they feel too much pressure to hurry, they may decide not to speak at all. They may still be processing and need just a bit more time to respond. So if your child comes to you and clearly needs or wants something, offer a suggestion, then wait a moment to see if they will offer some sort of a response.
Offer choices rather than asking complex questions: It’s natural to ask a question when we need an answer or response from someone. But questions can be too complex for toddlers. When they want something, avoid responding with a question. Instead, offer two suggestions. For example, when your child signals they want a snack, don’t say “What do you want?” A better response would be to hold out an applesauce, then hold out a yogurt. State the word as you hold the item out to them, then wait for a response (provide wait time/listen). Even if they just gesture and do not speak, reward them with the item, then say the word again a few times (which provides more language input).
Don’t say “say…”: Telling a child to “say this” can put a lot of pressure on them. Similarly, don’t require a response for them to get something. For example, requiring them to say “more” before giving more or requiring them to babble applesauce to receive the snack will cause a shut down.
Try not to correct them if they mispronounce: It can take a lot of courage for a child to attempt muttering their first words. But how would you feel if you were trying something new and you were constantly being corrected? When a child says a first word, it's likely that it will be mispronounced. Our response should not be, “No, say this.” This type of response can cause your child to feel inadequate or incapable. Instead, offer praise and repeat the word back to them without criticizing their previous mispronunciation.
Always offer praise: We all work harder when we feel like our efforts are valued. Offering praise when a child does vocalize can give them just the boost they need to keep trying!
All children develop at different rates. Some may walk at 9 months, and some won’t talk until their second birthday. And that’s okay! It’s okay for children to have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. And it's not our job as parents to completely eradicate those weaknesses or struggles for them. They just need our love, attention, and guidance as we navigate the difficulties together while reminding them that we will always be there to support them no matter what.