My Toddler Isn't Speaking Yet — What Do I Do?
Speech delays are a relatively common occurrence in young children, but how can you help your toddler begin using spoken language? When should you seek the help of a professional?
At What Age Should My Toddler Be Speaking?
Between 6 and 15 months, your little one should go from making babbling sounds to hopefully saying their first word or two. It may not be perfect, but if it sounds somewhat close, your child is at least on the right track.
As they approach the 18-month mark, they should have quite a vocabulary going and be able to compose short sentences, such as "Give drink!" or "What's that?"
Between the ages of 2 and 3, your toddler should have a decently expanded vocabulary and also be able to use pronouns for people, form longer 3-word sentences, use descriptive words, and even respond to questions. A stranger may not be able to understand what your little one is trying to communicate just yet, but you should be able to communicate relatively well with your toddler as they rapidly improve their verbal language skills.
For a list of specific milestones for each age, please refer to the list provided by Stanford Children's Health here.
Is Something Wrong with My Toddler?
If your child isn't hitting his or her milestones on time and doesn't appear to be catching up, this is always something you should discuss with your pediatrician. There occasionally may be underlying issues that could be impairing your child's ability to grasp language, but often, children just learn at different rates, and some take a while to catch up to the other kids in their age group.
A delay in speech does not mean something is guaranteed to be "wrong" with your child. However, if the problems persist or are accompanied by an impaired ability to communicate using gestures or other forms of body language or they exhibit any other unusual mannerisms on a regular basis, this is something you need to be sure to discuss with your child's doctor.
Potential Causes of Speech Delays
This is not a comprehensive list, but here are some of the potential issues that may impact a child's ability to effectively communicate using verbal language:
There may also be additional health concerns that can impact your child's developmental milestones, especially those affecting speech, so be sure to discuss any concerns or symptoms with a trusted pediatrician.
How to Help Improve Your Toddler's Speaking Abilities
Language is a very complex concept to learn. There are so many words in our respective languages, they can be used in so many ways, and little ones are trying to learn these terms and how to use them all while hearing numerous variations from other children and adults they may be exposed to on a daily basis.
Luckily, children's minds are like sponges, and these early years are the greatest periods in which to instruct our children on learning a variety of skills and becoming familiar with multiple areas of knowledge. Although a child may experience delays in speech or even other areas of learning (such as motor skills or specific topics/concepts), they may excel in other areas instead.
Babies and toddlers rapidly grow to understand what we're telling them but may struggle with communicating their needs, wants, or preferences back to us. Here are some ways you can begin managing your child's speech development at home, whether you're waiting on health services to address a potential speech delay or simply waiting to see if any intervention is truly necessary.
Model Correct Speaking
It should go without saying that it will be very counter-productive to scold your child or correct them if they're unable to pronounce something correctly or don't use the correct sounds when trying to communicate.
What's best to do is to simply model the correct way of speaking to have them pick up on the proper terminology and pronunciation in an organic way. Structured teaching of words and sounds may be beneficial in some cases, but this can also cause a lot of unnecessary stress for some children as well.
Make an effort to narrate some of the things you do throughout the day when your child is present. Allow them to naturally become familiar with the flow of your family's preferred language(s), the words you use when indicating certain items or people, and also the changes that take place regarding tense as you navigate your daily tasks.
When your child—if they do speak but are simply having difficulties with speech—attempts to communicate, this is also a great opportunity to help expand on what they are saying as you model more complex sentences. As an example, let's say that your toddler says, "Pet dog!" when wanting to love on the family canine. You can then model correct language by commenting back to them, "We pet the dog. That's right!" This shows them how to elaborate on their simple sentences to begin using correct sentence structure rather than relying solely on simplified statements.
Read to Your Toddler
Reading to your toddler is something all parents are encouraged to do, but this is especially important for those whose little ones struggle with speech and other language issues.
Hearing the sounds of a language and being motivated to be engaged in the story being read is a great way to provide your child with continued exposure to speech patterns and words. In general, many children will begin to pick up on some of the words in their favorite story after having it read to them numerous times, and this is a great method for encouraging a child to improve their communication skills and begin to mimic words and start using verbal language.
Use Storytelling During Pretend Play
Another great method that ties into the narration approach is to incorporate storytelling during pretend play. As your little one travels off into their imagination and begins an adventure with their favorite toys, help them tell stories of what's taking place during all of the excitement.
If your toddler makes their favorite Paw Patrol pup land in an invisible pile of mud after jumping off the Lookout, they may narrate it themselves as, "Rubble splash!" You can reiterate this as: "Rubble jumped off the top of the Lookout and landed in a big pile of mud! Eww! Now he's splashing in the mud!" This will provide your child with exposure to the language that would be used to describe what he or she just made happen.
Doing this consistently will provide more and more experiences for them to use as reference when choosing to explain activities and actions (whether realistically or for the sake of play) in the future.
When to See a Doctor or Specialist
Any time your child is not reaching their milestones, this is something that should be discussed with your pediatrician. Although some delays are considered perfectly normal, and many children often catch up on their own time, there may sometimes be instances in which a health issue (such as those listed above) may be a contributing factor to your child's difficulties with spoken language and communication.
Depending on your child's individual circumstances and your pediatrician's recommendations, it may be necessary to enlist the help of a speech therapist to assist your little one in catching up to where they need to be.
For more information about both speech delays and language delays, please refer to the information posted on KidsHealth.org.
For a very in-depth overview of milestones, delay issues, and what to expect at your pediatrician's office when seeking help for a speech or language delay, please refer to the amazing collection of information on the topic at HealthyChildren.org, a website composed of topics answered by actual pediatricians and backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Additionally, I am not an Amazon affiliate nor acquiring any financial compensation for posting this particular book, but I cannot recommend enough the "Talking with Your Toddler" book by Teresa and Laura Laikko. It was such a huge help when my youngest was struggling with words and communication!
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, nor have I been trained in any aspect of child healthcare. However, I am a parent to a toddler who has struggled with a speech delay, so all of the information provided is based on both what I've personally experienced and used to help improve my own child's communication skills as well as what has been researched and linked within the associated sections of information above. If you have any questions or concerns about your child's health and development, please consult a trusted pediatrician to receive a proper diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.