How to Help Your Toddler to Talk

Worried your child isn’t saying many words? Learn how to help your toddler talk with simple activities that encourage words and simple sentences.

How to Help Your Toddler to TalkWhen my son was a baby, people kept telling us, “Oh, he’s going to be an early talker. Just listen to him babble!” I agreed, up until his 15-month appointment when his pediatrician asked the question that changed my mind:

“How many words does he say?”

“Umm…” I stammered. “Maybe three?” Even after I responded, I knew I wasn’t accurate.

You see, his three words weren’t words so much as babbles. He’d say “mamama…” but without any direct correlation to me (or anything else, really). But because it sounded like “mama” I counted it as a word. The other two were incoherent, too.

The pediatrician was hoping he was saying three clear words, and that most 18-month-olds say an average of 10 words, with two-year-olds an average of 50.

When I couldn’t even coax three words out of my toddler, I launched into worry mode. “What could be causing his speech delay?” I asked my husband.

I Googled possible causes for language delays (never Google anything when you’re worried), finding issues I felt anxious about. Is he social enough? How come he prefers books instead of cuddling with us? Why doesn’t he smile as often as his little cousin?

The biggest downside wasn’t even the stress I put on myself or the hours researching symptoms my toddler hadn’t even been diagnosed with. It was my growing impatience and lack of faith in him.

How to help your toddler talk

The day we arrived home from the doctor’s appointment, I embarked on a mission to get him talk. I held up a ball and made sure he was looking at me and said, “This is a BALL. Baaaaaall. Can you say ‘ball’? Say ‘ball’.”

As you might guess, he had no patience for that kind of teaching. He brushed me aside and even got impatient with me. And that’s when I realized I needed to take a step back and be his biggest advocate, not someone pressuring him to perform.

I needed to guide him through these activities while respecting his learning curve. I’m thankful I was able to see that early on because I would’ve hated nagging him all because of a worry.

Pressuring him to talk was clearly not working, so I found several activities on how to help your toddler talk. These are supportive ways to encourage language development and avoid worry and stress. Like other parents have said:

Lea's quote

“Thank you so much for this post! I was worried sick lately when I saw my friend’s toddler who is just a month older than my 18 month old talking while my son hasn’t said any meaningful word apart from mama and babbling every now and then. I was so worried and of course I googled a lot. Thank God I found this post. I love your word there ‘I should be his advocate…’ Yep, just what I need. Thanks again!” -Farah

“You don’t know how helpful this post has been for me and my daughter. Thank you so much.” -Sedionia

“Thank you so much for this post. I had a near identical debilitating moment of anxiety for my son yesterday after our ped mentioned the words ‘speech therapist.’ I questioned all the books I’d read, all the matter-of-fact breakfast narrations in his high chair. I even decided to stop reading books in Spanish in case I was confusing him! Now that I’ve taken a breath, I’ll return to the happy, respectful exchanges we’ve always had. Thanks again!” -Gina

1. Play communication games

Play is one of the best ways to encourage your toddler’s speech development, and many don’t always involve saying words. With these games, she learns to imitate and respond to someone else:

  • Have her copy actions in nursery rhymes and songs, such as The Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Hokey Pokey or The Wheels on the Bus
  • Clap and encourage her to clap after she has done something she’s proud of
  • Wave “hi” and “bye-bye,” even if you’re at home playing a game of hide and seek
  • Make animal sounds, pointing or describing the animal that makes the sound
  • Read aloud—I can’t say enough about the benefits of reading every day, including helping with speech development

Free resource: Want a list of the best books to read aloud with her? Join my newsletter and grab your Read Aloud Book List—at no cost to you. You’ll get hundreds of favorite selections, perfect for introducing words and encouraging her to talk:

Read Aloud Book List

2. Expand your toddler’s communication

Whether your toddler is already saying a few words or not, he is communicating with you. His one word might be “ball,” or he could have no words and relies on gestures to say he wants it. Regardless of how many words he uses, expand on the way he had just communicated.

For instance, if he says “ball,” you might respond with, “Yes, you’re holding the ball.” If he points to it, you can say, “Do you want the ball? Let me get it for you.”

You’re saying the main word, “ball” with repetition, saying it back to him in context. You’re expanding on how he’s conveying his thoughts with new words he can learn. Hearing you speak not only focuses on a respectful two-way communication, but allows him to hear a wider vocabulary.

3. Describe what your toddler is doing

One of the best ways to introduce words to your toddler is to describe what she’s doing, especially during play. Think of yourself as a sportscaster narrating what you see happening without placing judgment on what you see.

For instance, you can say, “You’re trying to put the triangle shape into the hole.” Avoid saying things like, “That’s too hard for you” (or not saying anything at all and just doing it for her). Describe her actions so she can relate the words she hears to what she’s doing.

Look for clues that she’s interested in having you describe her actions, like turning to look at you. If she seems bothered or would rather have silence or no interruptions, save the conversation for another time.

Another option besides narrating her actions is to describe your own. Talk about what you’re doing in a realistic, non-exaggerated manner. You don’t need to fill every second with words, but do speak as you would if she were any other person with you.

You can talk about the items you’re putting in the shopping cart, or how you’re chopping up carrots. You’re not showering her with words so much as communicating as you would with anyone else.

4. Talk in a normal way

Don’t make the mistake I did when I kept saying “ball” over and over to my toddler, thinking he’d magically repeat it after me.

It doesn’t work that way.

“Dumbing down” the way we speak to kids sounds disrespectful, as if they can’t understand or hear what we say.

Instead of baby talk and exaggeration, speak normally and slowly, using casual and conversational words. You’re exposing your child to new words without assuming he has no clue what you’re talking about.

And don’t babble back if he says a string of incoherent sounds. This not only diminishes what he’s trying to communicate, but doesn’t provide the words he can model. Rather than babbling, describe what you see: “You like your teddy bear, don’t you?” or “Looks like you’ve got a lot to say!”

Take a look at these 31 conversation starters for kids.

5. Give your toddler the opportunity to talk

Many of us know our kids so well that we can anticipate every want or need. We know to provide their cup of water at every mealtime without bothering to ask them if they want it. We have everything on hand long before they even have to ask for it.

Trouble is, anticipating their needs doesn’t provide the opportunity for them to communicate.

Let’s say you know your toddler wants to play with the toy truck but can’t reach it himself. In the past, you may have grabbed the truck for him the minute you saw him heading to the toy.

Instead, wait for him to communicate that he wants the truck. He might grunt, turn to look at you, or reach his arms up, but at least he has the chance to communicate. You can then respond with, “Do you want the truck? Sure, let me grab it for you.”

6. Label items

Mention the items you talk about in your conversations in a natural way. Let’s say your toddler is drawing and scribbling. You can say, “You’re coloring with the yellow pencil. Do you like yellow?”

There’s no need to repeat the word “yellow” over and over. You run the risk of dumbing down your conversation. Instead, find a balance between labeling the items she sees with having a normal conversation about them.

7. Wait and listen

Just because your toddler can’t say words, doesn’t mean you should take over the conversation.

Wait for him to respond, in whatever way he can. From grunts to pointed fingers, he’s communicating in the way he knows how. Give him the chance and the time to respond to your side of the conversation.

Then, listen to what he says. Don’t assume you know what he wants, and instead wait for his response. He learns that a conversation is a two-way communication between two people, not one.

And make eye contact when you speak. This forces you to consider his point of view and shows that you respect his time and effort.

8. Don’t test or correct

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As tempting as it is to test or correct your toddler, don’t. Neither will help her speak and can even discourage her from making progress.

For instance, don’t go through items in your home testing to see how well she can say them. You’ll stress yourself out more if she can’t come up with the words or mistakes them for another (trust me, I know).

And if she does make a mistake, don’t correct her all the time. In his book, Learning All the Time, John Holt writes:

“When children first learn to talk, they will often use the name of one object to refer to a whole class of similar objects. In other words, when a toddler refers to every animal as a ‘dog,’ she isn’t indicating that she doesn’t know the difference.

“If a distinguished person from a foreign country were visiting you, you would not correct every mistake he made in English, however much he might want to learn the language, because it would be rude. We do not think of rudeness or courtesy as being applicable to our dealings with very little children. But they are.”

John Holt Learning All the Time

Your toddler calling the cat a “dog” is an accomplishment on its own. She has somehow figured out that four-legged animals look similar and has categorized them under a word she can say—”dog.” Don’t discount the progress she has made because she’s only using one word for all four-legged animals.


I continued to work with my toddler’s speech development, pushing the worry aside and focusing on encouraging him in a positive way. I had also signed him up for an evaluation by a speech therapy based on the pediatrician’s recommendation, should he need it.

But one day, he did it. While eating bananas, he said, “Nana.” Leave it to my food-loving toddler to assign the beloved first word to a favorite fruit. The flow of new words since that day erased all those weeks of worry. I made a list of his new words until it grew too long that I stopped keeping count.

Turns out, I had subjected myself to needless worry about having a late talker.

After all, worry has never done me any good especially when all he needed was some time and help. So yes, I should have asked, “Can you say ‘ball’?” but with a smile, a pair of gentle eyes and a more patient, encouraging, and worry-free attitude.

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  1. Thank you so much for this post. I had a near identical debilitating moment of anxiety for my son yesterday after our ped mentioned the words “speech therapist.” I questioned all the books I’d read, all the matter-of-fact breakfast narrations in his high chair. I even decided to stop reading books in Spanish in case I was confusing him! Now that I’ve taken a breath, I’ll return to the happy, respectful exchanges we’ve always had. Thanks again!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Oh I’m so glad the post resonated with you, Gina—you’re welcome! It’s definitely enough to make any mom anxious and question her past actions and decisions. I was also worried that learning a different language was totally confusing my son as well! Yep—it’s so much better to focus on positive interactions with your son and thinking that he’s going to learn his words, rather than thinking there’s a problem. Let me know how it goes down the line! xo, Nina

  2. Hello, looks like I am facing similar experiences. Would you mind sharing what age your son finally had a flow of words after “nana”?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Farlin! It took about 3 months for him to say more words and meet the normal standards.

  3. My son is 18 months and he hardly talks. I mean mama and dada are often, but we’ll get a word randomly every once and a while then never again like hot, bread, dog, whatever. But he has NO interest in repeating. After one or two words started did he seem to learn faster? Also my son doesn’t point and really doesn’t like waving even though he has. I’ve been stressing over this way too much so your advice has put my mind at ease, thank you!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Megan! My son did eventually start talking more and more once he got those first 10 words down. Slowly I’d notice more words, and months later it got to the point where it felt useless to even list them anymore because they were so many. If you’re at all worried, I would double check with your pediatrician, as he or she can better assess what sort of resources your son would need, if any. Our pediatrician was a big advocate for early intervention, where she would rather be safe than sorry, so even though nothing ended up being wrong, it did put my mind at ease to start the process with getting a speech therapist just so that at least we had everything in place should we need those resources. But regardless, definitely don’t stress. I know, easier said than done! Rest assured that most of the horror stories we read on the internet about any ailment is likely the extreme end of things, and that you rarely hear about good news because once people realize they’re fine, they rarely go back online to update their status. This is why I tell myself to stop Googling things when I get worried 🙂 But truly, the best way to put your mind at ease is to check with your pediatrician so that they at least know your concerns and can tell you the next steps to take if any.

  4. Hi, at what age did he really start to carry a conversation. My son is about 2 1/2 and he says the majority of the alphabet and can count until 10 with some numbers between 20. He also knows a few shapes. But he doesn’t really talk much.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      At about 2.5 years old all three boys were able to communicate pretty understandably. It wasn’t so much that they knew the same words as older kids or that they could speak in complete sentences, but we could understand each other fairly well. What does his pediatrician say about his speech?

  5. You don’t know how helpful this post has been for me and my daughter. Thank you so much

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Oh I am so glad to hear that, Sedionia! I’m so glad the post was helpful.

  6. Thank you for this post!
    I’m feeling a bit defeated with my daughters speech, maybe she just needs more time, but by 18 months she had pretty much no words. Her pediatrician recommended by age 2 if she was still “behind” in speech that we should see a speech therapist. Well, by 19ish months she said “Nana” for banana and made that connection, I thought for sure from here on out we would start seeing a ton of words, she did have a few more after this such as “mama”, “again” “nene” for bunny she has pointed to a cow and said “ooo” for moo and she has said a couple other words. By 21 months old she has about 8ish words that she has used but doesn’t necessarily use on a regular basis. Am I being too hard on her, worrying too much, is that a lot of words within 2 or 3 months? I do all of these things with her, narrate what she is doing, talk to her, read to her, play games with her, I’ve looked up speech therapy games even so i could try some of it at home and see if it helped. I’m not worried as far as her other development, and she does communicate by pointing or some sign language, she listens to commands and she understands what everything is. I just wonder if it’s time to bring her to a speech therapist for early intervention, or if I should give her more time.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Sarah! I’d continue to follow your pediatrician’s recommendations. Did she give a number of words to know by age two? I know they all vary, but our pediatrician had given a number to know by a certain age, so that if the child isn’t meeting those goals, then she recommends speech therapy. So I’d definitely follow up with her to see if she thinks speech therapy would be a good idea, and especially if it takes a while to get the process going. In the meantime, know that you’re doing great from the sounds of it! I’d focus on keeping learning fun and engaging, and not letting your anxieties or worries pass through to your daughter. It’ll all work out, and I know in the early stages of a child’s life it’s hard to see that it all works out eventually, but more than likely, no matter what happens, you’ll pull through and wonder what you were ever worried about 🙂

  7. My toddler is t too bad at saying words or learning new ones, but he doesn’t talk very clear for a toddler his age (will be 3 in November). I see other kids his age that are talking in better sentences and clearer than he is and I just get worried :(.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I hear ya, Leanne! I’d check with his pediatrician to see if he or she can recommend local resources available to you. She can even better gauge whether there’s even a problem to begin with, hopefully alleviating the worries you have. And continue to talk to him and applying the tips in this article at home to further support his language. xo, Nina

  8. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve spent the last few days after my sons 12 month (seems a bit early to be already talking about a delay??) trying to find ways to make my son talk. And I did the same thing. SAY BALL!!!
    It makes me feel less crazy. Thank you. I will try to be patient.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I can relate all too well, Rebecca 🙂 And yes, it wasn’t until my kids were around 15 months when their pediatrician started asking about how many words they knew, so I’d give it time. I think speaking in a normal tone of voice but elaborating your conversations can help. For instance, if he asks for the ball, don’t just say “Here you go,” and instead say, “You want the red ball? Here’s the red ball you wanted!” But yes, patience is definitely key. After three kids who all hit milestones at different times, I can certainly say that all kids develop differently. I’d consult with your pediatrician to see if they see anything you need to do anything about (plus they’ll be able to point you in the right direction anyway). In the meantime, I’d just enjoy these moments and try not to compare or put pressure on him 🙂

  9. Thank you so much for this post! I almost cried. I was worried sick lately when I saw my friend’s toddler who is just a month older than my 18 month old talking while my son hasn’t said any meaningful word apart from mama and variegated babbling every now and then. I was so worried and of course I googled a lot. Thank God I found this post. I love your word there “I should be his advocate…” Yep, just what I need. Thanks again!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I’m so glad the post helped, Farah! If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that worry never gets us anywhere 😉 Hopefully this has put your heart at ease, and if anything, kept you calm and centered so that you’re present with your little one, no matter what happens!

  10. Hi, my son is almost 2.5 and still doesn’t talk much, he only has maybe 15 -20 words and no matter what we do to help and encourage him, he just doesn’t seem to want to talk. We’ve been to all the little talker programs in our area and he’s been referred for speech therapy in our area, but it’s taking forever to get the call. His pediatrician has assessed him and said there is no medical reason why he isn’t talking and he is a very intelligent little boy, well beyond his years in that aspect, but he just doesn’t seem to want to talk. It’s very worrysome as a mother for him to seem so far behind the other children his age (and some younger). I just don’t know what else to do.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Kerry! It seems like you’re doing all you can, and have the support and resources behind you to help you along. Focus less on the stress, since he’ll pick that up, and more on reassuring yourself that you’re doing all you can, and that you can handle whatever life throws at you. And most important, that worrying does absolutely nothing than stress you out (easier said than done, I know!). Continue to reach out to your doctor, follow up with the speech therapists, but otherwise do the simple exercises to encourage him to talk without the added pressure. He will get there!