Many parents worry when their toddler isn’t talking as much as other kids their age. A late talker is a toddler between 18-24 months old who has a limited vocabulary compared to peers. While frustrating, you don’t need to panic. There are many effective strategies parents can use at home to encourage speech development.
This comprehensive guide will provide parents with useful information and tips to help a late talking toddler improve their communication skills.
- Late talking is common and does not necessarily indicate a long-term speech delay. Many late talkers catch up by age 3 with help.
- Create a language-rich home environment and narrate your day to expose your toddler to more words.
- Use short phrases, repeat new words often, and limit baby talk as much as possible.
- Read books together frequently and engage your child during story time instead of passive listening.
- Encourage interactive play and model using language by taking turns and asking questions.
- Use gestures, pictures, and visual aids like flashcards to reinforce new vocabulary.
- Limit screen time and surround your child with real conversations.
- Ask your pediatrician for a speech-language evaluation if your child is not making progress. Early intervention can make a big difference.
Understanding Late Talking in Toddlers
The first 3 years of life are critical for speech and language development. However, the pace at which toddlers begin talking can vary quite a bit.
Here are some key points about late talking:
- Definition: Late talking generally refers to toddlers between 18-24 months with expressive language delays. This means limited vocabulary and trouble putting words together.
- Prevalence: Up to 20% of 24-month-olds are late talkers. Boys are more at risk than girls.
- Causes: Late talking can be caused by a lack of early stimulation, developmental delays like autism, hearing problems, or no clear cause.
- Outcomes: With help, 40-50% of late talkers catch up to peers by age 3. About 30% continue to have minor issues. Only 20-30% have persistent language disorders.
- Early intervention is key: The earlier language delays are identified and treated, the better children respond. Waiting and seeing often causes bigger lags.
- It’s not the only issue: Late talkers can also have challenges with comprehension, following directions, gestures, and social skills. Pay attention to all aspects of communication.
So if your toddler is not where you hoped with talking, take heart. You have time to boost their development with the right support. Late talking does not necessarily mean a lifelong speech disorder.
Creating a Language-Rich Home Environment
One of the most effective ways to encourage speech development is making your home communication friendly. Surround your late talking toddler with positive models of language.
Speak to Your Child Frequently
- Narrate your day constantly – “I’m washing the dishes. The water is hot. The dishes are dirty.” Describe what you’re doing, seeing, planning, and feeling out loud.
- Use self-talk and think aloud. Let your child hear your thought process. “I’m feeling hungry. I think I’ll have an apple. Yummy, this apple is crunchy.”
- Have back-and-forth conversations with your toddler throughout the day, even if they don’t respond with words. Ask questions and respond to their babbles.
- Cuddle and talk to your child while reading, playing, and relaxing together. Casual interactions are great language opportunities.
- Speak clearly in grammatically correct short sentences. Avoid baby talk like “wawa” for water. Expand on what they say – “Ball! Yes, that’s a big, blue ball!”
The more words your toddler hears from conversations, the more their vocabulary and communication skills will grow.
Surround Them with Rich, Interactive Media
- Read books out loud together for at least 15-20 minutes daily. Choose engaging books with rhymes, songs, bright pictures, textures, and repetition.
- Use dramatic voices, sound effects, and enthusiasm when reading. Ask questions. “Do you see the rabbit?” Point out pictures.
- Listen to audiobooks and educational kids songs/nursery rhymes. Sing along and dance together.
- Limit passive television watching. If you use screens, choose educational shows that encourage interaction.
- Play games that involve naming objects, making animal sounds, and having discussions. Puzzles, shape sorters, and blocks are great toys.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding digital media for children under 18 months other than video chatting. For kids 18-24 months, limit high-quality programming to just 1 hour a day.
Expose Them to New Vocabulary
- Name household objects, foods, and baby items as you use them. “Here is your round plate. I’m pouring your cold milk.”
- Use descriptive words like colors, textures, temperatures, shapes and categories. “That red apple was crunchy and sweet!”
- Go outside for walks and narrate what you see. “Look, a fluffy dog! Those are tall trees!” Point out objects and use new vocabulary.
- Involve all senses by letting them taste, touch, smell, hear, and see new things while you name them. “This soap smells so flowery!”
- Take your toddler to new places like the grocery store and talk about what you’re seeing and doing. Introduce new words through experience.
The more diverse words your late talking toddler hears in meaningful real-life contexts, the more their understanding of language will grow.
Interacting with Your Late Talker
It’s not enough just to talk at your child all day long. You need interactive communication for optimal development. Give your toddler chances to listen, respond, take turns, start discussions, and practice new words.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
- During play, reading, and everyday activities, ask lots of questions that require more than a yes/no response: What do you see? How does it feel? What color is that? Where is the doggie?
- If your child points or gestures at something, respond by naming it and asking a question. “You’re pointing at the truck! Do you see the big truck?”
- Wait after asking questions to give your toddler processing time and a chance to respond verbally. Resist immediately supplying the answer yourself.
- Ask follow-up questions to continue the conversation. If they say “Dog,” say, “Yes, it’s a dog! What’s the dog doing?”
Asking open-ended questions and pausing for responses will encourage your little one to start communicating more during your interactions.
Have Back-and-Forth Conversations
- Notice when your child initiates interaction with sounds, gestures, or words and respond excitedly to show communication elicits a reaction.
- Repeat or expand on utterances to model correct grammar and vocabulary. If they say “Block,” you say “Yes, you built a tower with the blocks!”
- Avoid always directing the conversation. Take turns exchanging vocalizations and responding to each other.
- Imitate their babbling, introduce a related word, and wait for them to take another turn.
- Describe the play activity together, going back and forth discussing what you’re seeing and doing.
Reciprocal, balanced conversations during play are a key way toddlers learn language from parents. Follow their lead and engage.
Narrate Your Child’s Actions
- While your toddler explores and plays, describe out loud what they are doing. “You’re rolling the ball. Now you’re reaching for the cube.”
- Explain what they are looking at or pointing to. “That’s the red firetruck you got for your birthday! It has loud sirens.”
- Talk about what they’re feeling or need based on cues like whining. “Uh oh, you’re getting cranky. I think you need a nap.”
Putting their play activities, emotions, desires, and non-verbal communication into words will boost understanding. It also gives word examples tied into actions.
Useful Communication Strategies
When interacting with your late talking toddler, keep your language simple and easy to follow. Here are some key tips:
- Use mostly short, simple phrases of 3-5 common words. Slow down your speech rate slightly.
- Avoid long rambling sentences that overload your child with too much information at once.
- Break down big ideas into smaller chunks they can digest more easily.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
- When introducing new words, use them over and over in different contexts. Repetition really solidifies meaning.
- Recycle new vocabulary throughout your conversations and activities during the day. For example, talk about “square” shapes at breakfast, play with blocks after lunch, read a book about shapes before bed.
- Define unfamiliar words frequently using words you know they understand. “A helmet is a hard hat that protects your head.”
Toddlers often need to hear new words around 25 times before readily using them. Frequently repeating important vocabulary pays off.
Use Gestures and Visual Aids
- Point, demonstrate, act out, and use facial expressions, gestures, and signs along with speaking.
- Show pictures, flashcards, or objects when presenting new words like colors, animals, foods, and body parts.
- Keep favorite books around for toddlers to grab independently and “read” by turning pages and looking at the pictures.
Augmenting language with multisensory tools gives extra context clues about meaning. It also engages visual learners.
- If your child gets upset because you don’t understand them, empathize and reassure them you are trying to understand. “You’re feeling frustrated. I’m listening.”
- Reflect their emotions and comfort them if they have a meltdown instead of disciplining. “It’s hard when you can’t tell me what you want. Let’s take deep breaths.”
- Offer choices when they seem upset. “Do you want apple or banana?” “Should we read or play blocks?”
- Praise all efforts at using words and conveying messages, even if you don’t understand perfectly.
Having trouble communicating can spark tantrums and negative behavior. Your support and patience will help minimize frustration.
Reading Together Every Day
Reading together regularly is crucial for speech and language growth. It exposes your toddler to new vocabulary, grammar patterns, sounds, and visuals they can connect to meaning. Interactive reading provides great communication practice.
- Try to read with your child for at least 15 minutes daily, but more often is great!
- Allow your toddler to choose and turn pages of board books independently too. They absorb a lot from simple picture books.
- Make reading part of your child’s routine, like reading a couple books before naps and bedtime.
Regular read aloud sessions promote literacy and language skills starting from babyhood onward. It should be an essential part of your late talker’s schedule.
Make it Interactive
- While reading, run your finger under the words as you say them out loud.
- Ask who, what, where, when, and why questions about the pictures. Define new words. Point out letters and numbers.
- Let your child turn pages and determine the pace instead of rushing through.
- Track reading comprehension by asking your toddler to find specific images or characters. “Where is the blue bird?”
- Compare story objects to real life. “This truck is like Daddy’s! What sound does a truck make?” Make the noises together.
- Act out scenes with expression and props. Use different silly voices for characters. Make reading engaging and fun!
The more participatory the reading experience, the more language skills your toddler will gain. Encourage engagement and check comprehension.
Promoting Communication Through Play
Playtime is when toddlers are often most vocal and experimental with language. Take advantage of your child’s natural motivation to communicate during play.
Model Talking Through Play
- As you play together, demonstrate using speech to direct the activity. “Let’s build a big tower! I’ll put this red block here.”
- Verbalize your child’s actions. “You’re pushing the train down the track. It’s going so fast!”
- Use different voices and personalities for dolls and characters. Add sound effects.
The way you talk through play subconsciously teaches your toddler the power of language to interact, organize events, and express creativity.
- Wait after asking a question about their play to give them a chance to respond verbally before jumping in.
- If they start babbling or making comments, actively respond to keep the back-and-forth going as long as you can.
- Introduce vocabulary through play. “Let’s feed the baby with a bottle and a spoon. Can you hand me the spoon?”
- Narrate your own play actions to model using sentences. “I’m building a road for your cars. I’ll use this curve piece next.”
Playtime gives great practice having conversations about a shared activity they are interested and engaged in. Allow silences for responses.
Try Role Playing and Puppets
- Act out scenarios together like going to the doctor, zoo animals, or having a birthday party. Use props and assign roles.
- Use stuffed animals and puppets to model conversations, introduce new words through pretend play situations, and interact with your child.
- Make characters use incorrect grammar so your child needs to model the right way to say something in response.
The interactivity and imagination of role play allows creative language practice in low-pressure pretend situations.
More Tips to Encourage Your Late Talker
Here are a few more handy tips for bringing out your toddler’s speech:
- Sing songs with gestures like “Wheels on the Bus” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
- Play with bubbles, balloons, and balls to elicit sounds and utterances from your child. Blowing supports speech muscles.
- Help your toddler practice animal sounds, vehicle sounds, consonants, and vowels. Make it a game.
- Allow safe independent play for alone time since late talkers can get overwhelmed and withdraw if overstimulated.
- Use toddler-friendly apps and games that encourage language like Endless Alphabet but avoid passive TV.
- Join a playgroup or toddler music class to provide peer models for talking.
- Be patient – progress won’t happen overnight. But celebrate all efforts to communicate!
With your support, there’s a good chance your late talking toddler will get on track with speech soon. If you have ongoing concerns, discuss them with your pediatrician and request a speech evaluation if needed – early intervention can make a big difference. Remember, you are your child’s best advocate.
When to Seek Professional Help for Late Talking Toddlers
While late bloomers often catch up, some late talkers need professional support. Call your pediatrician if:
- Your child is not saying any words by 18 months.
- They cannot communicate basic wants and needs like “eat” or “up” by 24 months.
- You have trouble understanding their speech by age 2.
- They do not combine two words by age 2, like “more milk.”
- They seem to regress and lose language skills.
- You suspect hearing loss or developmental issues like autism.
- They have limited interest in communicating and seem very frustrated.
- There are no significant improvements in communication by age 3.
If identified early, speech and language delays respond better to treatment. An SLP can provide speech therapy activities to practice at home. Early intervention services may also be available in your area.
Don’t delay seeking help if you have ongoing concerns about your late talker’s language development.
Frequently Asked Questions About Late Talking Toddlers
Here are answers to some common questions parents have about late talking:
What is the difference between late talking and a speech delay?
Late talking means a toddler’s speech is somewhat behind compared to peers. A speech delay is more significant, with very few or no words by ages 2-3. Late talking can resolve on its own while delays usually need treatment.
What if my child makes sounds but doesn’t form words?
Babbling is a normal developmental step. But most toddlers begin using real words regularly between 12-18 months. Just sounds without words by 18 months warrants an evaluation. Imitate their sounds to model turning them into words.
Should I avoid baby talk?
Some baby talk is fine, but primarily use normal speech. Expand on simplified words they say – if they say “baba”, say “Yes, you’re drinking from your bottle!” Too much baby talk can reinforce immature communication.
What if my toddler understands but doesn’t speak much?
Receptive language skills often precede expressive skills. Understanding words is a good sign but they should still try communicating with gestures, sounds, or occasional words. Check for hearing issues if they seem to have poor receptive language too.
Is screen time harmful for late talkers?
Too much passive screen time doesn’t help communication. But limiting to 30-60 minutes of educational, interactive screen media can be OK. Apps that encourage speech development through games can be helpful. Avoid screens for under 18 months.
The earlier you identify and address speech delays, the better the outcome. Trust your instincts as a parent. With support, many late talkers do learn to communicate just fine. Patience and persistence are key.