When should my toddler be able to use words?

Harry is 16 months old and he doesn’t seem to be talking very much.  He says “Ba” for bottle and ball, and “Da” for Daddy and dog, and a few other short “words, but that’s it. Our first child talked early and hasn’t stopped-in fact we wonder if that’s the problem for Harry--there’s not much time for him to talk at all! Should we be worried?  What can we do to help Harry speak up?  We know that boys learn to speak later than girls, but we feel as if we should be helping him get a word in.

Toddlers begin to speak use words at different times, so it’s hard to say if Harry is behind.  It’s good that he is matching the initial sounds of words to the right nouns, and it sounds as if he’s trying to communicate.  At the same time, this is the age when toddlers are learning to speak by listening to others talk and the first question that needs an answer is whether anything is getting in the way of Harry’s hearing all sounds.  The most common cause of mild hearing loss in toddlers is fluid behind the eardrum, usually because of having had several ear infections (otitis media).  Ask your health care provider to examine Harry’s ears, and if there is any doubt schedule him for a hearing test.

Even if Harry’s hearing is fine, this is the time when it’s important to help build a toddler’s language skills.  Language development is communication, not just learning to say words. By Harry’s second birthday he should be saying 50 words and short two word sentences, and after that he’ll start learning new words every day.  Toddlers’ language skills should be expanding rapidly at this age and all children learn to talk best when parents and others are actively engaged with them.  

Most parents teach their children to communicate without even noticing how they are doing it.  For example, if you are getting Harry dressed and saying, “O.K. now, let’s get your shirt on.  Over your head, boom!  Where’s Harry?  Oh, here he is!” you are engaging him in a fun use of words.  That’s how he learns that communicating through language is important.

At the same time, parents sometimes forget the importance of keeping a child actively engaged in conversation.  If you are driving in your car listening to music or NPR, you may be entertained and Harry may be quiet, but the content of the programs are not going to interest him.  It’s just background noise.  When you are at home, if you are talking to big sister or spending time on the telephone while Harry plays quietly on the floor, he’s probably not learning much from what you are saying to others.  If you are playing with Harry while the TV is on  he might be happily enjoying your time together without being able to notice your words because of the background noise.

Does that mean you shouldn’t listen to the radio or talk on the phone or allow your daughter to watch her favorite show?  Not at all.  But if you have a child who is not picking up language as easily as other children his age, even if there’s nothing “wrong”, it’s important to make time for him to learn more.

Here are some dos and a few don’ts to make the most of your time teaching Harry to talk:

• Choose times when Harry is interested in interacting with you.  The best communication time is when you are able to look at each other’s faces, so that the words are connected to your facial expressions and he sees your mouth moving and your eyes widening.  That’s what makes him want to talk back!  In other situations--the car, while you are cooking or doing household tasks, you can also talk to him but think about singing songs so that he can feel the rhythm of language as well as the content.

 • Most toddlers love to do back and forth games of naming objects or body parts. Even though Harry isn’t saying the words himself, every time you say them he will be learning  by repetition.  Stand in front of a mitrror and point to your nose and say, “Nose:”, then Harr’s nose and say, “Harry’s nose”.  Find other noses in the house: his sister, the dog, the noses on pictures or in books.  Make the hunt for noses fun and you will see Harry’s eyes widen or a grin on his face when he gets what you are doing.

• Name and label what you are doing by showing him objects.  “Here’s the milk in your red cup!’ “Oh look, your showe are on the table.  Now where’s my coat?”  It might feel a bit silly at first, but your self-consciousness will fade as you see how much Harry ejoys the “conversation”.

• Parents sometimes ask if they should allow a non English speaking childcare provider to use English instead of her native language.  In almost all cases, it is better for a caregiver to use the language that is most comfortable for her, in order to encourage conversation.

• Read picture books together, choosing books that have lots of repetition and sentences that have predictable endings.  Lift the flap books, animal books, and response books that invite Harry’s participation are good choices:  “Where’s Spot?”, “Brown Bear, What Do You See” and “The Hungry Caterpillar” are classics.

• Ask Harry to follow simple directions and describe what he is doing: “Throw the ball!”  “Good, you threw the ball to me!  Here, catch the ball.  Good, you caught the ball”.  In this way, Harry will make the connections between actions and language.

• If Harry "talks" to you with sounds that are not yet words, respond to him as if he were talking.  Let him learn that it is rewarding to try to speak, so that he will be motivated to keep trying. "Poo." "Oh, you want my spoon?  Here, you take this.  Is that what you want?" If Harry uses single words, expand them into a short sentence.  "Baby?"  "Yes, that's a baby.  The baby is crying." •As Harry begins to speak more, respond to all of his words as if he were conversing in sentences.  "Kitty."  "You see the kitty?" "Go."  "Yes, the kitty goes through the door."  "Kitty?"  "The kitty went outside.  Do you want to see the kitty?'  "Kitty."  "O.K., lets go outside and see the kitty."

• When Harry is with you and his sister, try to speak in simple rather than complex sentences at least some of the time.  Although most one year olds will listen with pleasure while adults and older children talk, it can be hard for them to imitate what they hear if it is too complicated.  A toddler surrounded by a constant buzz of conversation may take longer to learn to speak than the child who has a parent who also talks to him at his own level.

• Switch topics as often as you need to hold Harry’s interest.  His attention span is short.  He may want to label waht he sees in a garden and then stoop to examine the fine details of a rock.  As he points, grunts or attempts words, follow his lead.

• Ask Harry questions, but don't worry if he doesn't answer.  Pause, and then supply the words and response you would give him if he did speak.  "What did you bring me?"  "Oh, a doll!"  "Thank you!  Shall I put it here?"  "No, not there?  Over here?  O.K., that's where you want it."   Encourage Harry to express himself in any way he can.  If he points to something he wants, respond, labeling the object. Don’t try to force him to say a word if he doesn’t know how.  Children rarely refuse to speak if they are able, and pushing Harry beyond his capabilities will frustrate both of you.


Keep observing Harry and return to your health care provider if he does not begin to add words in the next couple of months or if he does not engage in the kind of conversational games I’ve suggested.  A child may be late to talk for reasons other than being a "late bloomer".  The parent who observes the child at home is often the first person to notice that a child is not responding or vocalizing the way other children his age are. Early help with language development can make a big difference in a child’s ability to communicate well, now and in the future.