As your baby approaches toddlerhood, there are many stages of development to look forward to, such as walking and talking. But, not all toddlers are early talkers which can be worrying for parents who wonder if something is wrong.
“How to get my toddler to talk?” is a common question parents ask themselves. Getting your little one to talk isn’t going to happen overnight — it requires patience and consistency.
First, let’s discuss what speech milestones are expected in toddlers. By the first birthday, most one-year-olds can say two words consistently. In most cases, these words are “mama” and “dada.’
At 15 months, another word or two are added. There should also be lots of proto-declarative pointing: pointing at an object and vocalizing a sound. Most 18-month-olds can say at least 6 words and will begin to repeat others.
They may also recognize and can point to a few body parts. Language skills really advance between 18 months and 2 years of age. A two-year-old should say several two-word phrases and about 50 single words.
There will also be lots of sounds that seem like conversations but are unintelligible. This is called jargoning. By the age of 3, your toddler should begin to say 3-word sentences and have short conversations. Speech clarity should progress from 70% at age 3 to 100% by age 5 (1).
How to Get My Toddler to Talk
1. Create Talking Opportunities
You have countless ways to create talking opportunities which will encourage your toddler to begin speaking. These opportunities usually arise when your child wants something.
To get the ball rolling, you could place a favorite toy out of reach. Wait for your child to see it, and then let them ask for it.
If your toddler begins to point rather than talk, say, “Do you want the red car? Here is the red car.” This will help them understand how to use their communication and speaking skills to ask for help.
Another way is to predict what your toddler is looking for and then, again, place it out of reach. If it’s snack time, and they generally want a yogurt, then wait until they ask for it.
When walking around your home, try to rearrange some of your toddler’s toys. Place the items on the table or shelves — keep them within toddler-eye level, so they can spot them. Then wait for your little one to ask for it.
If you have puzzles or a Mr. Potato Head, which is excellent for teaching body parts, you should wait to hand them the pieces until they ask. Repeat what your toddler says or is trying to say.
One of our favorite games is to play the forgetful parent. This works wonders at subtly engaging toddlers while boosting their confidence when they remember something.
During a routine, such as getting dressed, do something out of order, or feign forgetfulness. Forget to put on their pants and go straight to socks and shoes.
Let your toddler catch your mistake and then offer praise like, “Yes, pants do come before shoes. Good job.”
If your toddler doesn’t catch it, you can subtly point out your mistake. Say something like, “Oh, where are your pants? Did Mommy forget?” Your toddler will love playing this.
2. Work to Expand Language Skills
When trying to expand your toddler’s language skills, you should always focus on reaching the next level. Don’t try to skip ahead and teach your little one something that’s too complicated, but also avoid going backward.
Many toddlers talk or communicate using only a few words. Your aim is to increase their vocabulary gradually.
While doing this, always listen to your child and follow their lead. Skipping to something too complicated will not keep them engaged or encouraged even to try. Remember, fun is the best way to learn.
Language comes naturally to almost all children, but progress will be helped if you utilize topics they’re interested in. Does your child love animals? Talk about animals you see in real life or those you spot in books.
Listen and observe as your little one is trying to communicate. We’ve included a few strategies you can follow:
Make Words Bigger
As a toddler, your child will probably be able to say a few words. So, an excellent place to start is by adding more words to what they say.
Let’s say they hand you a toy car and say the word “car.” Then give it back and say, “Yes, a car, a big, blue car. It goes vroom vroom.”
Take whatever your child is giving you, and increase it slightly before handing it back. This is a strategy you can use from an early age, even if your little one isn’t talking yet.
If pointing to a ball, say, “Ball! That is a big ball.” Use small words that can be understood and imitated.
When your toddler is trying to say a word, use what they’re giving you and imitate it. It’s similar to what you do when babies babble. You imitate their sounds and words, showing them that they’re being heard.
In turn, your toddler will begin to imitate you and your words, thus expanding their language skills.
Describe and Comment
Be the sportscaster during playtime — narrate and describe what your toddler is doing. If they are playing with a ball, say, “You are bouncing the ball — up and down it goes.” Stress determiners and pronouns to help with grammar.
Help your child get organized by making suggestions. If your child likes playing with farm animals, suggest placing the sheep in the barn.
This will kickstart their thinking, giving them a new perspective to consider. But remember to follow their cues — don’t become the director of the play.
Eliminate Negativity and Testing
Toddlers are still learning, so if you continue to meet their efforts with negativity, they’ll eventually stop trying. Expand their words instead of saying that it’s wrong.
If your toddler pronounces the word “elephant” wrong, turn it around and repeat in the affirmative, “Yes, elephant.” That’s more helpful than saying negatively, “No, elephant.”
By doing this, you’re correcting without being too blunt.
You should also try to limit testing. If you and your toddler are playing, avoid continuously asking what the different toys are called. Repeatedly testing them, particularly during play, can get annoying and disturb the fun.
Label Your Praise
“Good job” is easy to say, but it’s best to be specific. Label your praise, saying things like, “Good job packing all your toys away.” This reinforces the good things they do, encouraging good behavior.
As your toddler expands their vocabulary, expand your praise. Instead of saying, “Good job,” use “Nice job saying please” or “Nice job saying thank you.” You’re also helping to create a positive feeling surrounding communication, motivating them to keep trying and adding more words.
Most of us are guilty of always taking charge of situations with our toddlers. However, it’s essential to give them a turn whenever possible. It’s a fantastic way to exercise communication skills, even if it doesn’t involve talking.
Let’s say your little one looks to you if they need help with something, like opening a juice box. Ask your child, “Do you need help opening the box?” Then wait until they hand it to you, thus taking a turn.
Be Quick to Respond
While your toddler is learning to talk, it’s essential to show the importance of communication. Being quick to respond is a great way to do that.
Responding immediately, to both words and gestures, can help your child develop and model more advanced language skills.
3. Keep a Diary
A fantastic way to track progress is by keeping a diary. Take note of words your child uses or gestures to communicate. It could be that they move away from unwanted things, they don’t want or shake their head.
Communicative gestures are a crucial part of learning how to talk. Your toddler must associate the words with their respective action, such as by greeting or saying goodbye, we wave or shake hands.
Continue writing down what has been accomplished and then build on that. Having a diary is also helpful if your toddler needs to see a specialist.
4. Do 30 Minutes Every Day
Although your toddler will build on their language skills throughout the day, find 30 minutes where you both can concentrate on play that’s focused on expanding words.
5. Read Together
Reading with toddlers to get them to talk is different than reading a story at bedtime. Here, you want them looking at the book with you. On each page, point to the pictures, ask questions and help them describe.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
What Is a Late Talker?
Children who can comprehend what you’re saying, but have a limited expressive vocabulary between 18 and 35 months are considered late talkers (3).
A child’s expressive vocabulary is based on the words they use, not the way they pronounce them. They may say words or phrases like, “birdie,” “look, mama,” “mama gone,” and so on (4).
This is different from comprehension, which indicates what your child understands. Your child may not be able to say the word “shoes,” but if you ask them to get their shoes without pointing or gesturing, they understand what you mean.
Another determining factor of a late talker is whether or not there are delays in other developmental areas like walking and playing.
If a toddler also shows delayed development in these areas, a pediatrician will look for conditions like hearing issues or autism (5).
When I see patients with speech delay, my first recommendation is to have a hearing evaluation. If hearing is impaired, toddlers cannot learn and imitate language sounds properly. Because most toddlers are developmentally unable to do the same hearing tests as older children, I typically refer them to an audiologist or otolaryngologist for a more age-appropriate test. Depending on the test results, hearing devices and/or speech therapy may be necessary.
As for signs of autism, I typically see more than just delayed speech. There are often repetitive behaviors, or the child is easily upset by very minor things. If autism is suspected, an evaluation by a developmental pediatrician is helpful (6).
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
When Should Babies Talk?
Babies usually express their first word any time between 8 and 15 months of age. It depends significantly on what you do to expand their language and how often you do it.
Children will probably make slow progress at first. Once they reach 18 months, they should learn approximately ten new words every month going forward (7).
The expansion of their vocabulary speeds up around 17 to 20 months of age. They’re approaching the 50-word mark, and you can expect new words every day.
However, remember that numbers don’t always count — every child is different and learns at their own speed. Focus on how the words are used. Communication is the key skill to look for.
How Common Are Late Talkers?
Being a late talker is somewhat common. Estimations suggest that approximately one out of five children are late talkers (8). Interestingly, another study showed that boys are more likely to experience delays than girls (9).
Don’t get too worried — many children are late bloomers and will catch up (10).
Still, avoid brushing their delays off, and crossing your fingers that they’ll grow out of it. If you have any concerns, seek help.
When to See a Specialist
You should consult a speech-language pathologist (SLP) if:
- Your toddler is 20 months and uses less than 20 words, like nouns or names, verbs, adjectives, describing or social words.
- At 24 months, your toddler isn’t using at least 50 words and combining two or more.
- If you’re feeling worried — it’s best to identify a problem early on.
What About Bilingual Toddlers?
Bilingual is when a person speaks more than one language fluently. It’s becoming more common for parents to introduce several languages to their children from a young age. Although there isn’t much research on the topic, speaking more than one language won’t cause delays (11).
Some of my parents of bilingual toddlers express concern about delayed speech. I reassure them that the “total number of words” at their developmental stage is more important than which words are spoken in each language. Most toddlers adapt well to learning more than one language. They even seem to know the correct language to speak for different people. For example, if the parents speak English and a grandparent speaks Spanish, the child will only speak Spanish to this grandparent (12).
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
What does affect your child’s language skills? The amount of input and the opportunities to use their vocabulary. It’s essential, however, to try to profile the different languages and who your child speaks them with.
Don’t compare yourself or your toddler to other bilingual families. Everyone is different, and your child may not get enough exposure to your minority language. Your child will get there, but if you’re worried, seek help.
Don’t Lose a Language
The toddler years are great fun, as your little one begins to walk and can communicate with you. But it’s easy to worry when your child doesn’t develop according to your parenting book on milestones.
One milestone is talking — by 18 months, they’re expected to know ten words — talk about pressure.
Many parents ask, “How do I get my toddler to talk?” There are many ways to do that, but the best is to simply be around them. Take the words said to you, and exaggerate, expand, and build on them.
Being a late talker is relatively common, so don’t worry if other children talk before yours — every child is different. You can always consult a speech-language pathologist or your pediatrician for guidance if you have concerns.