Say it loud! Get your toddler talking
First and foremost, never put undue expectation on young shoulders. If your son picks up on your concerns about his lack of speech, he will only become more stubborn. If your daughter senses your disappointment, she will only become upset. Neither of these options initiates a healthy path to communication, let alone a good parent-child relationship.
Make learning to talk fun and praise every small accomplishment. When your toddler attempts to say something new or asks a question, give him your full attention, nod encouragingly and provide an appropriate response – this reassures him that his words are important to you, and demonstrates that a conversation works by taking turns.
Children learn by imitation. So spend as much time with your toddler as possible, and chat casually about the world around you. Describe how things look in an appealing way (‘what a big, shiny apple!’), what noises they make (‘the car goes broom!’), and what function they perform (‘into the water – splash!’). Show your enthusiasm for description and encourage your child to explain his surroundings, thoughts and feelings.
Don’t use ‘baby talk’ yourself. No matter how cute it sounds, pronouncing your own words incorrectly will not help your little one to pick up proper speech patterns. It’s time for ‘lello’ to become ‘yellow’, ‘geen’ to become ‘green’, ‘boo’ to become ‘blue’, and sentences to take the place of two-word fragments. However, while you can correct your child gently by repeating the right words back to him, it’s important to always show you understand his meaning. The confidence gained from being able to communicate is far more important than exact pronunciation at this early age.
Particularly if your toddler doesn’t have much contact with the outside world beyond his immediate family, you might find that his self-assurance increases once he starts going to playgroups, nurseries and kindergarten. Here he will be exposed to children who can communicate both more and less than he can; the chatterboxes might spur him on to join in, and the quiet ones might help him – and you – feel less frustrated.
Aside from situations involving other toddlers, try to include your child in adult conversations. You can make a point of saying “thank you” to the nice lady at the checkout, “asking” for a new book at the library and “chatting” to any grown-up friends you go to visit. Give him a sense of importance by showing him that his words matter to you and that they often have a consequence: “More biscuits, please?”
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of speaking for your toddler or finishing sentences for him. This is bad practice as it essentially teaches your little one to be lazy, and that mommy will always know what he wants and make it happen. Be patient and wait for him to verbalize his request, then repeat it back to him, with correct pronunciation, checking you have understood his meaning. Soon he will understand he needs to make a little extra effort and will also begin to feel more independent in a social setting.
It’s all in the timing
Set aside at least 20 minutes each day for one-to-one conversation between you and your child. Sit closely together and engage directly in whatever is catching his attention. If no particular play interests emerge, initiate singing songs, question-and-answer games or make up a story together, taking turns.
Always choose your timing carefully. You need your toddler to be alert and comfortable, perhaps after a nap, or after breakfast. Watch out for signs of tiredness – as with all new skills, learning to talk takes intense concentration. Little and often is key, and always stop when you see your child’s focus beginning to drift.
All kids progress at different rates, and as parents we are often quick to compare. This is one area of development that varies enormously from child to child, and while some may speak in complete six-word sentences by the age of 18 months, others will take a couple more years to reach that level of communication. This is perfectly normal for toddlers, but if you are concerned about your school-age child’s lack of progression, consult your pediatrician about speech therapy.