Worried your child isn’t saying many words? Learn how to help your toddler talk with simple activities that encourage words and simple sentences.
When 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.
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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:
“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
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!”
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.”
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.
Get more tips:
- How to Rock a Morning Routine for Toddlers
- 5 Ways to Stop Toddler Power Struggles Many Parents Don’t Think to Do
- How to Stop Your Toddler from Running Off in Public
- 5 Things to Remember when You’re Losing Your Temper with Your Toddler
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