How to Encourage a Late-Talking Toddler to Speak
At your child’s 18-month check-up, or even before, your pediatrician will start asking what words you toddler is saying. It can be frustrating as a parent if that answer is, “none.” Some doctors will recommend a speech evaluation at this age, or wait until they are two and reevaluate. Many otherwise healthy children end up with a speech delay, and it can happen for a variety of reasons. In most cases, babies who are late talkers end up speaking just fine within the coming years. If your baby is not talking yet, however, there are some simple things you can do at home to encourage them.
Common Reasons for Delayed Speech in Babies
A speech delay in children can be caused by many health and environmental factors. Hearing problems are a big factor in speech delay. Many parents don’t realize their child has any kind of hearing impairment until they don’t start talking on time. Other times, health problems like excessive ear infections or fluid buildup can cause temporary hearing loss and cause things to sound muffled. This was the case with my daughter with a speech delay—after 9 ear infections in 6 months, she had tubes placed in her ears, which has helped with hearing and allowed her to make progress speaking.
In many cases, the child simply is not interested or has no need to talk yet. If they can communicate just fine using signs, shaking their head, or by pointing, they might not make the extra effort just yet to speak. It is also not uncommon for younger siblings to talk later than their older siblings did. When the bigger kids “wait” on them and understand their signs, they stay in their comfort zone and feel no need to talk.
In other instances, speech delay can be a sign of an intellectual or socio-emotional disability. This is why it is important to get your child checked by their doctor to determine if there are any other missing pieces to the puzzle.
Whatever the reason, there are some simple changes and activities that you can do at home that may benefit a late talking child. Implement them one at a time. If a strategy is working, keep doing it while gradually adding the others. If you’ve tried one for a few weeks and still aren’t seeing any results, move on and try another one. Never pressure or scold your child in case they are not catching on to any of these. Always use positive reinforcement, and offer plenty of praise when they do make an effort to speak.
Strategies to Develop Speech in Late-Talkers
Reading Books Together
Reading together with your children is good for them no matter what age they are, and whether or not they are suffering from any kind of disability or delay. Babies and toddlers probably won’t stay on one page for too long. They may even insist on holding the book upside down! At this point, the goal should not be finishing the story or reading all of the text, but engaging their interest and encouraging them to communicate about what they are experiencing. When they point to different things on the pages, emphatically name what they are looking at. Say “Ball, you found the ball!” Or “cow, moooo.” Don’t force them to read if they don’t want to, but try to have books available to look at in your home.
Sing and Act Out Songs
Songs trigger memory and an emotional connection. Have you ever heard a song from your childhood and instantly remembered that time in your life? Singing songs like “Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes” while standing up and pointing to each body part can reinforce their memory of how to make those sounds. Many late talkers will understand perfectly when you say “point to your nose” or “show me your hand,” but need some extra encouragement to remember how to make the sounds to say those words.
Playing music CD’s or videos with children’s songs is great, but it is even better if you can actually sing to your child. They won’t care if you’re not a first-class singer. They will appreciate the one on one time and are more likely to remember songs when they are sung to directly.
"Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes"
Narrate What You Are Doing
This is referred to as “self-talk” or “parallel talk.” In the present tense, talk to your child about what you are doing. Say “Mommy is cooking dinner” or “Mommy is eating a red apple; it is so juicy and delicious!” Parallel talk is the same concept, but narrating what your child is doing. You can say “You fell down, ouch!” or “You’re taking a bath, splish splash!”
Self-talk and parallel talk should be done naturally—they should not be forced. You don’t need to talk all day long about what you are doing, and you don’t need to take your child away from something they’re already playing so they’ll pay attention to you. This strategy is just to give them more exposure to words and labels of everything objects and activities around them. When in doubt, follow their lead. If they’re already concentrating on another toy, let them keep playing with it and just talk about it together.
Choose a “Word of the Day”
I have had some great success with this one. I will choose a word that I make a point to repeat often throughout the day (in context, of course). Short, easy words, or names of people in our household have worked best. “Words of the day” in our house have included water, ball, cat, and the names of siblings. When you are saying the word, repeat it slowly several times and make sure you are making eye contact with your child when you are speaking.
Reinforce the word of focus by gently encouraging them to say it, too. When playing with a ball, for example, if your child is gesturing that they want the ball back, pretend as if you don’t know what it is they want. Sometimes this will prompt them to speak. If after a minute they get frustrated, continue playing.
Focusing on repeating simple words can be a good start for encouraging speech.
Do Puzzles Together
Puzzles encourage problem solving. With my older child, I have seen that working on puzzles or playing other strategic games improves their abilities in other areas. Puzzles in and of themselves don’t directly promote speech, but they get their brains working in different ways.
When doing puzzles, use self-talk and parallel talk. Say out loud, “Oh, this piece doesn’t go here, maybe if I turn it….” Whatever the puzzle is about, talk about that. If the puzzle is of the ABC’s, animals, cars, etc. name each letter or object as you work on the puzzle.
Puzzles are a great way to encourage critical thinking and prompt verbal communication.
Imitate Animal Sounds
Environmental sounds are often the gateway into real speech. Many babies will say “moo,” “bow-wow,” “meow,” or “baa” before even saying “Mommy” or “Daddy.” The same goes for “vroom” for a car or “choo-choo” for a train.
If your child is taking a while to get started talking, try focusing first on some environmental noises. You can read board books that have a lot of animals in them. If you have a pet, imitate the noises they make and encourage your child to imitate them. If you are able, visit a zoo or another place where you can see more animals and hear their sounds.
Imitating animal sounds can help a child with a speech delay.
Have Your Child Play With Children Who Are Speaking More
Sometimes, kids learn better from other kids. This is why a lot of kids start talking a lot more once they go to school or daycare. If you know families with children around the same age as your child but who are talking, organize some play dates. If you have older children, ask them to play with the younger one. Since discovering my younger daughter’s speech delay, I have encouraged my older daughter to play with her and to use strategies like self-talk and parallel talk.
Give Choices, and Avoid “Yes” or “No” Questions
A lot of children with a speech delay get really good at shaking their heads “yes” or “no.” They have discovered that that works good enough to get their point across and get their needs met. Sometimes, this has turned in to me pointing at four or five different items on a shelf until my daughter finally shaking her head “yes” instead of “no.” A speech therapist friend of mine suggested offering two choices instead of closed-ended questions. When I ask now, for instance, if she would like to play with the dog or the bear, she will at least make the beginning consonant and vowel sound of the choice she prefers.
In the end, most children will learn to talk and will catch up with their peers. If by 18 months your child is not talking at all, it is a good idea to get a speech evaluation. Some kids will start talking just fine when they are two or older, however. These strategies can help in the meantime to encourage your child as much as possible in a positive way at home.
What Strategies Have Worked for You?
What strategies have you used to encourage talking? What has worked best?
Have you had success with any of these suggestions for encouraging speech in late talkers? I would love to hear your success stories as well as any suggestions of strategies that have worked for you.