At your child’s 18-month checkup, or even before, your pediatrician may ask what words your toddler is saying. It can be frustrating as a parent if the answer is “none.” Some doctors will recommend a speech evaluation at this age, or they may wait until your child is two to 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 in 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 and Toddlers
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 make things sound muffled. This was the case with my daughter with a speech delay—after nine ear infections in six months, she had tubes placed in her ears, which helped with her hearing and allowed her to make progress speaking.
Lack of Interest in Talking
In many cases, the child simply is not interested in talking or has no need to talk yet. If they can communicate just fine by using signs, shaking their head, or pointing, they might not make the extra effort to speak yet. 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.
Speech and Language Disorders or Disabilities
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.
Strategies to Develop Speech in Late-Talkers
Whatever the reason, there are some simple changes you can make and activities 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.
- Read Books Together
- Sing and Act Out Songs
- Narrate What You Are Doing
- Choose a "Word of the Day"
- Do Puzzles Together
- Imitate Animal Sounds
- Have Your Child Play With Children Who Speak More
- Give Choices and Avoid "Yes" or "No" Questions
Never pressure or scold your child if they don't catch on to these strategies. Always use positive reinforcement, and offer plenty of praise when they do make an effort to speak.
1. Read 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.
2. 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 your child's 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 they may need some extra encouragement to remember how to make the sounds to say those words.
Don't Worry If You're Not a Good Singer
Playing music CDs 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 you sing to them directly.
3. 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 it involves 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 interrupt your child's play so they’ll pay attention to you. This strategy is just to give them more exposure to words and labels of everyday 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.
4. Choose a “Word of the Day”
I have had some great success with this one. I will choose a word, then make a point of repeating it 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.
Encourage Your Child to Say the Selected Word
Reinforce the word by gently encouraging your child 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.
5. Do Puzzles Together
Puzzles encourage problem-solving. With my older child, I have seen that working on puzzles or playing other strategic games has improved their abilities in other areas. Puzzles in and of themselves don’t directly promote speech, but they get your child's brain 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 ABCs, animals, cars, etc., name each letter or object as you work on the puzzle.
6. 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 start 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.
7. Have Your Child Play With Children Who Speak More
Sometimes, kids learn better from other kids. This is why a lot of kids start talking much 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 playdates. If you have older children, ask them to play with the younger ones. 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.
8. 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 this works well enough to get their point across and get their needs met. Sometimes, this has turned into me pointing at four or five different items on a shelf until my daughter finally shakes her head “yes” instead of “no.”
A speech therapist friend of mine suggested offering two choices instead of closed-ended questions. For instance, when I ask now 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.
Be Patient and Encouraging
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.
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.
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Language Delay in Toddlers
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Speech Delay in Children
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: Late Blooming or Language Problem?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: My kid signs rhymes, and almost remembers the alphabet, but in general, he does not talk. Why is this?
Answer: He may be shy. If he is doing those things I am guessing he is catching on to words too, and has those in his head. He may do what my daughter did, and start talking out of the blue using words she's been hearing.
Shivani on July 18, 2020:
My son is 3.4 months does not talk much . Trying to make sentences now but understands everything and now from past 3 months he has started using lot of words. What ever I teach him he tries to repeat but not make effort to talk himself .
lisa on April 07, 2020:
my son is 2.5 years and he can only saying afew words and singing along to cartoon songs.but he cant talk or communicate to me
Nadia on July 19, 2019:
My son is 18 months he understands instructions and can point or makes sounds ( baba, more tata) but wont say anything else and shakes his head for yes or no. Or may ryhme to songs but he just doesnt seem to want to talk. Any suggestions?
Astha on September 23, 2018:
My daughter is 2 yr 3 month old..she understand each and every thing nd she said yes or no and speak 15 to 16 words..but she cant speak sentences and many more words..pls suggest something
Nebyou on August 31, 2018:
I have same issue. My daughter she 5 and remembers all of the kiss songs but she had a hard time communicating with us. She goes to school since 3 and was getting a speech therapy there also in private but we are not seeing the change we want.
Megan Machucho (author) from Milwaukee, WI on August 18, 2018:
Have you talked to your pediatrician about a referral for a speech evaluation?
Nadia Nassar on August 17, 2018:
Hi there my son will be 25 months on Sunday. He does NOT talk. Like nothing, I thought I heard him say ball a few times yesterday, and he sounds like he might be saying kitty when he sees the family cat. I enrolled him in speech therapy at the hospital but have only had two sessions so far. I don't know if my son is moody, but he is definitely hard to control at times and throws tantrums for no reason at home and in public, and so far at both of his group therapy (speech) sessions. (Only 2 other kids and their moms). He points quite a bit, however, for the most part I don't know what he is trying to communicate, although he is really good at taking my hand and leading me to where he wants or needs to go. I feel as if his tantrums are related possibly to his frustration due to not being able to communicate with his parents. But it also frustrates me and I am a very emotional person and am worried that me upset = crying will discourage him. Can anyone suggest some tips.We are only now really starting to get more into reading (over the last couple of months) due to the fact that before that he would just rip the pages. I need help, I want to help him but I don't know how.Thanks
Rupal kshatriya on July 13, 2018:
Hii my son is 2.6 years. He dont speak fully. Be understand what i say. N he umderstand all cartoon n rhymes n doing the same actions as they do.
Me n my husband from differnt language but full day he live with me. He sounds animals like cow dog elephant crow. I started his pre nusery school just few days back but he dont understand what teacher say.
Hw i help him n wht shldi do?? Plz guide me.
pratibha on January 18, 2018:
My son is 3and a half what should i do at home to make him talk... everything else is normal.. He is hearing properly, understanding everything. please suggest me something I can do at home.
Suzie from Carson City on July 11, 2017:
Oh how I love reading this particular type of article (about childhood development, parental concerns, etc).....NOW, as I sit so smug, with 4 adult sons (married Dads) 12 grandchildren & one great grandchild. Did I know everything and do everything right? Of course not! Let's get serious. Do I know everything now and if I could start all over again, would I do it all right this time? YES I do and probably I would not. This wise old Gram is smart enough to know that the MOM who knows it all or has all the answers, hasn't been born yet. Oh, but do we all Love our kids to pieces and always want the very best for them? Absolutely.
Thus we will watch, listen, cater to, teach, read all the books.....believe all the so-called "experts", worry, fret & make sure we're on top of it all. Phew.....what a job, eh, Moms?
Children come in every variety, so far known to man....and then some. Late walkers, talkers, early learners, young geniuses, those who are mild-mannered, the monkeys who never sit still....gigglers & the less easily-entertained.
I recall a good friend whose 4th child was non verbal even at 19 months and both parents were baffled by this. The child was near perfect in every way but would only mumble some sounds and do a lot of pointing. It was clear he comprehended every word said to him by anyone. Mom & Dad did the whole Dr, testing, researching, praying....when one day out of the blue, this little boy opened his mouth and spoke 3 complete comprehensible sentences in a row......and from that day forward out-talked his 3 siblings. The real laugh to this is that he became an attorney! That's what I call, I R O N I C.....and there are stories just like this one, by the thousands.
You're right to seek help and/or answers when you have concerns. Your child, your right to do what you feel best...always.
As an old Veteran, who has not only been through the Parent ringer, but has observed at least a million family situations....all I want to say is, relax as much as possible and as is within the safe circle, be patient, put your fabulous intuitions & natural instincts to work (just as F.A. did....BRAVO to you, Mom) know when it's advisable to seek help...(and even if it is to calm your anxiety) and just keep that Parental love going full force. Thankfully, 96% of the time, (and I don't need to tell you that's almost always!) everything will be just fine! I swear! Peace, Paula
FlourishAnyway from USA on July 11, 2017:
I'm a psychologist and when my daughter (who is now 17) was only 9 months of age she lost the few words she had attempted. There was never any babbling or bye bye, mama, dada. There was actually no waving either, and the eye contact was not there. She seemed to retreat into herself, and I had her hearing tested. It was fine.
I then took her to The Cleveland Clinic to have her evaluated for autism. They didn't think she had it because she did respond nonverbally to social cues. She was assessed as mild to moderate speech impaired at 9 months. After a couple of expensive and unproductive speech therapy sessions, I developed my own action plan that involved narrating aloud nearly everything I was doing, singing a lot, joining a mother and baby Kindermusik group, reading Dr. Seuss in particular but lots and lots of other books, using accents and intonations to make it really fun, and looking her in the eyes when I was soliciting information or giving direction. I also tried to use what she enjoyed to reward and encourage verbalizing. She loved animals so we concentrated a lot on names, textures, sounds animals make, and going to onsite locations like the farm and the zoo.
By age 2 1/2 I could not shut her up. She was very outgoing and the life of anywhere we went, often engaging strangers about why they were in wheelchairs ("wheelseats") or why they were sad. Today at age 17 that has moderated and she is a gifted student and socially well adjusted (although having a psychologist for a parent is never easy!). I encourage any parent struggling with this issue to love them relentlessly and pursue a set of strategies that work for you.