There are so many things to teach our toddlers: how to tie their shoes, say please and thank you, even how to eat with utensils. But one thing that is often overlooked is teaching them how to talk! Check out My Baby Nursery for all your baby product needs.
Don’t fret, though; this blog post will show you the best way for your toddler to learn those first words.
Learning to Talk
From the time of birth, your baby will make a lot of sounds. This includes cooing, gurgling, and of course, crying. And then, often sometime before the end of their first year, your baby will utter their very first word.
Whether that first word is “mama, “dada,” or something else, this is a huge milestone and an exciting time for you. But as your baby becomes older, you might wonder how their language skills compare to children of a similar age.
To be clear, children learn to talk at different speeds. So if your baby talks later than an older sibling, there probably isn’t anything to worry about. At the same time, though, it helps to understand typical language milestones.
This way, you can pick up on possible developmental issues early. The reality is, some toddlers need a little extra help when learning to talk.
Even though toddlers develop language skills gradually, they’re communicating from as early as birth.
At age 19 to 24 months, a toddler’s vocabulary has expanded to 50 to 100 words. They can likely name things like body parts and familiar people. They may begin to speak in short phrases or sentences.
And by the time your toddler is 2 to 3 years old, they can have a vocabulary of 250 words or more. They can ask questions, request items, and follow more detailed directions.
How Can You Teach Your Toddler to Talk?
Of course, the age ranges above are just a guideline. And the truth is, some toddlers pick up language skills a bit later than others. This doesn’t mean that there’s a problem.
Although your child will likely catch up on language skills at some point, there’s plenty you can do in the meantime to encourage speech and help develop their language skills.
Don’t worry if you’re not teaching them all of these things, as a lot of skills occur naturally.
However, if there are some things that you want your baby to pick up quicker, there are plenty of ways to help move them along.
Babies and toddlers learn through repetition and consistency. Here’s a bunch of tips to get you started.
Reading to your child — as much as possible every day — is one of the best things you can do to encourage language development.
One 2016 study found children are exposed to a broader vocabulary through having picture books read to them than hearing adult speech.
In fact, according to a 2019 study, reading just one book each day can translate to children being exposed to 1.4 million more words than those children who aren’t read to by kindergarten!
Use Sign Language
You don’t have to be fluent in sign language to teach your toddler a few basic signs.
Many parents have taught their babies and toddlers how to sign words like “more,” “milk,” and “all done.”
Young children often grasp a second language easier than adults. This may allow them to communicate and express themselves at a much younger age.
You’ll sign the word “more” while saying the word at the same time. Do this repeatedly so that your child learns the sign and associates the word with it.
Giving your toddler the ability to express themselves through sign language may help them feel more confident in their communications.
Helping them communicate with less frustration might help create a better environment for learning more languages.
Use Language Whenever Possible
Just because your baby can’t talk doesn’t mean you should sit in silence all day.
The more you talk and express yourself, the easier it’ll be for your toddler to learn a language at a younger age.
If you’re changing your toddler’s diaper, narrate or explain what you’re doing.
Let them know about your day, or talk about anything else that comes to mind. Be sure to use simple words and short sentences when possible.
You can also encourage talking by reading to your toddler as you move through your day. You can read the recipe while you’re cooking together.
Or, if you’re enjoying a walk around your neighbourhood, read street signs as you approach them.
You can even sing to your child — may be their favourite lullaby. If they don’t have one, sing your favourite song.
Refrain from Baby Talk
While it’s adorable when little ones misuse words or use baby talk, leave it to them. Don’t feel like you need to correct them, just respond with the proper usage.
For example, if your little one asks you to “bunnet” their shirt, you can simply say, “Yes, I’ll button your shirt.”
Some toddlers will point to an item they want instead of asking for it. You can act as your child’s interpreter and help them understand the names of certain things.
For example, if your toddler points to a cup of Juice, respond by saying, “Juice. Do you want Juice?”
The goal is to encourage your child to say the word “juice.” So the next time they want something to drink, instead of just pointing, encourage them to display the actual word.
Expand on Their Responses
Another way to expand your child’s vocabulary is to develop their responses. For example, if your child sees a dog and says the word “dog,” you could respond by saying, “Yes, that’s a big, brown dog.”
You can also use this technique when your child drops words in a sentence. Your child might say, “The dog is big.” You can expand on this by responding, “The dog is big.”
Give Your Child Choices
You can also encourage communication by giving your child choices. You have two juices, and you want your child to choose between orange juice and apple juice.
You can ask your toddler, “Do you want oranges, or do you want apples?”
If your toddler points or gestures their response, encourage them to use their words.
Limit Screen Time
A 2018 study found that increased screen time on mobile media devices was associated with language delays in 18-month-olds. Experts point out interactions with others — not staring at a screen — is best for language development.
The best way to get your toddler to talk is by turning everyday activities into learning experiences. As they go about their day-to-day life, there are a wealth of knowledge and teaching opportunities for them to encounter. You just have to be available and willing to do it with them.
Simply Talk to Them
A LOT. You may think that you talk to them enough now, but if your child isn’t speaking yet, maybe you’re not talking to them enough.
Use every opportunity to expose them to language, even if they’re not responding.
During diaper changes, while you’re making dinner, at mealtimes, etc. You can expose them to a ton of new language during everyday activities.
Have regular conversations with them, even if you think the vocabulary is too complex.
Dictate What You’re Doing
It can get pretty quiet in a house alone with a baby. Since they’re not talking back to us, we’re less inclined to speak to them.
However, make everyday activities become learning experiences for your child.
Talk about your day and their days as you go about doing things like, “I’m washing the dishes”, “You’re playing with the ball”, “I’m curling my hair”, etc.
They will love hearing the sound of your voice, and hearing the dialogue is an excellent way for them to start picking up new vocabulary.
Label Everything Verbally
As your child plays, eats, or just hangs out, say the toys or objects they are holding, seeing, or hearing.
Label everything that you can so they hear the words over and over again. This is when repetition comes in, as well.
If you’re naming the foods they eat or the things they play with every day, they should start to pick up the vocabulary very soon.
Have Them Repeat
Once you get in the routine of labelling everything to them, have them repeat it back to you. Start with just one word or even the first sound of the word.
If they say ‘much for milk or ‘but a ball, that’s a great start!
This shows that they are still getting the concept that all of these objects have names, but they just can’t make all the sounds correctly.
Use What Interests Them
Determine what your child likes and use that to your advantage.
If they obsess over a particular character, music, food, or toy, provide them with plenty of opportunities to see, hear, taste, and play with that item while also talking about it with them.
If your child loves cars and trucks, don’t try to get them to sit down and learn animal noises. Use what works. It will be a lot less of a struggle if they show interest in that activity.
Babies and toddlers love a good rhythm and music, so they’re more likely to pick up words and gestures from a song.
Try singing simple kids songs with gestures, like The Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Twinkle Twinkle.
If they begin to imitate the movements and gestures that go along with the song, words should follow. Making music may also help to get them singing songs.
You can use maracas, drums, and xylophones to get your little one making sounds and noises as well.
Use Open-Ended Toys
Toys that provide the use of imagination are the best for little ones. My Baby Nursery has a huge range of baby toys for your baby room.
Using stacking cups, Mega Blocks, Shape Sorters, and pretend to play toys are a few great items that encourage creativity and exploration.
These are far better than electronic games that do all the work for them.
Allow for an Expectant Pause
A pregnant pause is allowing some time to pass for your child to give you a response. As children are learning to talk, their processing speed will be a lot slower than ours.
If you’re asking them to repeat a sound, word, or object or asking them a question, expect that they may need extra time.
Therefore, give them a few seconds to respond before you just decide to provide them with the answer or move on to the next word.
As stated above, play is great for toddlers to learn new language and skills. However, they shouldn’t always be left to play independently.
Guided play simply means that you sit with them while they play and guide their actions while also labelling everything they are doing.
So while they’re playing with a shape sorter, talk to them about the objects and what they are doing: “This is a square. This is a circle. The circle goes in. The square drops down.”
If they’re colouring, use language like, “that is a crayon. The crayon is blue. You’re colouring. Draw a circle. Hold the crayon in your hand.”
Use this time to ask questions (“what animal is this?”), give commands (“put the grapes in the shopping cart”), or get them to repeat (“This is a block. Say block.”)
All of this additional language is so helpful for them to hear, rather than playing quietly by themselves.
Don’t Respond to Gestures as a Form of Language.
Using grunts, pointing, signs, or signalling is still considered expressive language. The child is still communicating in a way to get you to understand their wants and needs.
Therefore, early on, it is ok to let your child make gestures to communicate. However, if you want them to start talking, you need to stop fulfilling their requests from signals.
Wait until they say a word or at least make a sound (first syllable) similar to the word to get what they want.
They won’t be able to say, “Can I have the ball, please?” But if they’re pointing at the ball, wait until they say ball or buh before handing it over.
If you’re still just struggling to get your child to make sounds and one-syllable words, don’t expect them to say significant words.
Even an attempt to say the first sound of a word is a great start!
Speak With Excitement
Toddlers love seeing their parents get excited. They’ll have an easier time responding and imitating when you’re showing lots of excitement in your expressions and voice.
So be sure to use overly exaggerated gestures, facial expressions, and sounds.
Let out the silliness and craziness with your child. They will love playing fun games with you!
So think of some wild chase you have to go on to find a goose, the alligator that might get you if you walk too slow, or even just a wild dance party.
Language happens when children are engaged and entertained.
Speak Slowly, but Not Baby Talk
The more you speak using regular adult language instead of baby talk, the easier it will be for your child to pick up this language too.
Your toddler should be well past the “dada” and “baba” stages, so try not to use these babblings to get your child to talk.
Of course, they may use some of these sounds to indicate an object like baba for a bottle or ma for milk, but if you hear them saying the babbles, just repeat the accurate word back to them.
Also, make sure you’re slowing down your speech when you are talking to them. As I said before, their processing speed is much slower than ours at this point.
This means that it takes their little brains longer to hear, understand, and respond when you speak. If you slow down both your speech and your expectations of their response time, you may notice an improved rate of language.
Books are such an excellent tool to get your child to learn language, concepts and form a love of reading.
As there are so many benefits of reading to your child early on, developing new vocabulary is one of the most important ones.
As you read to your child, point out objects and pictures in the book.
Depending on how far along your child is in their language development, you can say the word a couple of times yourself and have them repeat it back to you, have them point to a picture while attempting to say the sound, ask them what the image is, or what the action is that is happening.
If you use television or an iPad to keep your child occupied, replace the screen with books.
The more your child gets used to looking at books, the more excited he or she will get for reading.
Screen Time and Toddler Talking
Screen time isn’t recommended for children under two years, other than video-chatting.
After two years, your child can have some screen time, but it’s important to use age-appropriate, quality content.
It’s also important to balance screen time with other activities like physical play, reading, creative play and social time with family and friends.
Long periods of screen time have been associated with a range of health issues in toddlers and preschoolers.
Screen time is also linked to slower development of language skills, short-term memory and more deficient social skills.
What to Expect
In the toddler years, your child’s language starts to ‘explode’, although your child has been learning about words, sounds and back-and-forth conversations since birth.
At 12-18 months, your toddler will probably:
- say their first words, but you and other close family members might be the only people who know what these words mean
- enjoy babbling when you talk
- point out familiar objects when you name them.
By two years, your toddler will probably:
- enjoy naming everyday things, like ‘doggie’ and ‘drink.’
- understand and follow a simple request, like ‘Bring me your book’ or ‘Wave bye-bye.’
- Have trouble with some sounds – for example, they might say ‘wed’ when they mean ‘red’.
By three years, your child will probably:
- move on to simple sentences, like ‘Where doggie went?’
- say words and sentences that strangers can mostly understand
- understand most of what adults say
- Start to use pronouns (I, you, me, we, they) and some plurals.
Talking can be frustrating for toddlers – they can have so much to tell you but can’t quite get the words out. Your toddler will get there eventually.
Trying and making mistakes are essential parts of learning.
Toddlers respond best to encouragement and interest. So when you’re helping your child express, focus on having fun together.
Try to avoid teasing or correcting your toddler’s mistakes too often.
You can help your child put all his new words together and teach him things that are important to know when you:
- Teach your child to say his or her first and last name.
- Ask about the number, size, and shape of the things your child shows you.
- Ask open-ended questions that don’t have a “yes” or “no” answer. This helps them develop their ideas and learn to express them. If it’s worms, you could say: “What fat, wiggly worms! How many are there?…Where are they going? Wait, watch and listen to the answer. You can suggest an answer if needed: “I see five. Are they going to the park or the store?”
- Ask your child to tell you the story that goes with a favourite book. “What happened to those three pigs?” Reading spurs language development. Take him to storytime at your local library. Your toddler will enjoy sharing books with you as well as your peers.
- Do lots of pretend play. Acting out stories and role-playing create rich opportunities for using and learning the language.
- Don’t forget what worked earlier. For example, your child still needs quiet time. This is not just for naps. Turn off the TV and radio and let your child enjoy subtle play, singing, and talking with you.
The Importance of Play in Learning to Talk
Even before children learn to speak, they’re taking in so much information through their senses.
During play, mealtime, bedtime, and bath time, they’re gaining a better understanding of how their bodies and objects work.
Play is the main occupation of babies and toddlers because they’re playing when they’re not eating and sleeping.
They learn new skills, concepts, and all about the world around them through play.
While play may seem simple and fun to you, it is one of the best learning experiences for your child.
They are learning sizes, colours, shapes, actions, and concepts by simply placing a square cube into a large cup or pushing a button to make an object pop out.
Once they can label the objects, actions, and concepts that they are learning, they will have a much better time during play.
As much as independent play is excellent for learning, guided play with an adult is a great way to get your toddler learning to talk. It is the only way to get their language exploding.
Play Ideas to Encourage Toddler Talking
The more words you expose your child to, the more terms they’ll learn. Here are some play ideas to encourage toddler talking:
- Read with your child.
- Talk about the ordinary things you do each day – for example, ‘I’m hanging these clothes to dry outside because it’s a nice day.
- Respond to and talk about your child’s interests. For example, if your child is pretending to drive a car, ask your child where they’re going.
- Recite nursery rhymes and sing songs. Play rhymes, stories and songs in the car.
- Copy your child’s attempts at words to encourage two-way conversation. Also, build on your child’s words – for example, when your toddler says ‘train’, you can say, ‘Yes, it’s a big red train’.
- When your child is ‘talking’, show that you’re listening by smiling and looking at your child. Also, praise your child’s efforts to talk.
- Leave time after you talk to give your child a chance to reply. Your child might not always have the right words, but they’ll still try to respond. This helps children learn about the conversation.
- Point to and name body parts, or make it into a game – for example, ‘Where is your mouth?’
Hearing your baby’s first word is an exciting time, and as they become older, you might be equally excited for them to follow directions and put sentences together.
So yes, it’s discouraging when your toddler doesn’t hit these important milestones as you expected.
But even if your child experiences some language delays, this doesn’t always indicate a severe problem.
Remember, children develop language skills at different speeds. If you have any concerns or feel that there’s an underlying issue, speak with your pediatrician as a precaution.