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Ways to Help Toddlers with Language Development

Toddler Language Development

As a school psychologist, I have always been aware of “typical” developmental milestones that children should reach by different ages.  So when my son had no words or gestures by his first birthday, I wanted to make sure this was something I we worked on together. He babbled all day long and could say things like ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ but did not use them meaningfully.  My boy could understand some things that we said, but he didn’t wave hello or goodbye, wouldn’t point to things that we named, and didn’t say simple words to communicate. My son was the happiest little guy who loved to smile and laugh, look at books, climb, play beek a boo and hide and seek.  I didn’t have concerns about his physical, social, or cognitive development, but I knew his language development wasn’t where it should be. I initially felt guilty, as though I had let him down or wasn’t spending enough time with him helping him develop language skills. But in reality, I talked with my son all day, every day, told him what we were doing, we sang songs, read books, and labeled things around us.  At first, I was asked if his older sister did a lot of talking for him, because that can often be the case with older siblings. But in our situation, that wasn’t the case. His big sister loved to talk and talked to him, but never talked for him.

Every child develops differently.  Some faster in some areas and less quickly in others.  I don’t believe it’s important to compare your child to others, or to try to make them accomplish things more quickly than they are ready to.  I’ve heard of parents who are trying to get therapies for their typically developing children to help give them a “head start” or become “advanced,” which I quite frankly think is insane.  Children need time to be cared for, nurtured, to play, and explore; this is how they learn. They shouldn’t be placed into therapies that they don’t need because their parents want to rush through their childhood.  

However, if you do have concerns that your child may not be developing in certain areas like language or physical development, definitely express your concerns to your pediatrician.  They do ask questions and screen at well baby and child visits, however, sometimes things can be missed. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else and will always be their number 1 advocate!

Here are some strategies to encourage language development in  young children, recommended by speech language pathologists that I’ve worked with.  They are very practical and straightforward = easy to do at home!

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1. Pick one 10-20 minute period every day to label and talk about everything that you do.  (You can do this all day long if you remember and have the energy to, but at least be intentional about it for 10-20 minutes daily).  We chose bath time/getting ready for bed and breakfast time. During bath, I labeled everything that we were doing and repeated words.  (i.e. It’s bath time! You’re going in the bathtub. This is the bathtub. Let’s feel the water. This is the water. Splash the water. Oooo, water (while pouring water out of a cup).   We did this with bathtub, water, wash, bath toys, and towel.

Breakfast was another time that worked really well for us.  It was summer time, and my older daughter tended to sleep in for at least one hour so that gave us 1-1 uninterrupted time.  Each morning, when he would start whining to indicate that he was hungry, I would say to him, “Are you hungry, do you want to EAT?  Let’s go EAT.” While making breakfast, we followed our routine. Making it a routine makes it predictable, they hear the words and pair them with the actions over and over. Initially, I would talk and guide through our routine, and eventually would pause, and he would finish what I was saying!   I labeled the steps I was taking and repeated them. It’s a lot of repetition, but it works and it is time well spent together.

2. Pick a book and read the same one daily for about 2 weeks.  One SLP recommended that we start with an animal book so that he could practice imitating sounds (easier than full words).  My son loved this and soon learned a few basic animal sounds (dog, cat, rooster were first) and within a few months is able to say over 10 animal sounds consistently.  After two weeks, we moved on to a Mickey Mouse book that was of very high interest to my son. With this book he learned to point to different characters that were named, said “Go go!,” and a few other words.  I loved this strategy. Eventually, start pausing at different points in the book and your child fill in the blank. They will have heard the book over and over and will know and eventually be able to say the word and later the sentence!

3. Use the same strategy as #2 but with interactive games.  Think peek a boo, hide and seek, ring around the rosie, etc.  Make it fun, get down on their level, and play it over and over while it holds their interest; do not force it if they’re not interested, it will defeat the purpose.

4. Offer choices.  Do you want this toy or this toy?  Do you want this food or this food?  Do you want more or all done? This forced him to continue developing his understanding of language and to respond to me.  At first he would point or grab what he wanted and I would say the name of the item several times. After a while, he started naming them.

5. Listen, imitate, respond. Attempts your child makes at speaking, even if it’s babbling, should be encouraged.  If he was babbling while playing with something, encourage by saying something like, oh yes, this is a train.  The train says chooo chooo. Ohh, are you pointing to the dog? This is a dog. Yes, the dog says, “woof woof.”  Bubbles. Do you see the bubbles? They go, pop pop pop! Also, repeating what they say or imitating their sounds is great as it encourages them to continue practicing sounds and speech.

Many of these strategies are from a Hanen Program called It Takes Two to Talk! which I highly recommend!  They have a book available and also classes that you can find on their website.

As always, I am sharing what has worked well for my child and what was recommended to me and do not intend to replace the advice of any health care provider or specialist :)

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Matt Hendon