Toddlerhood is filled with new challenges like learning to walk (and run), using utensils, chewing solid foods, and saying new words. Suddenly, children learn that they aren’t a baby who cries for what they want anymore. Now, they are a young child who must ask for what they want.
With the myriad of new challenges toddlers face, using spoken language may not be high on their priority list. Maybe their needs are fulfilled without having to ask, or maybe they simply aren’t ready to talk.
Every child develops at their own pace, so don’t panic if your little one isn’t talking. Instead, give your child the help and encouragement they need to reach this milestone in their own time.
I’ve worked with toddlers learning to speak, and I’ve tried it all. We narrated our day, read word books, emphasized small words like “up” and “hi,” over annunciated, and rhymed. These are all good strategies, but here are three methods that worked best for me.
1. Animal Sounds.
Young children are fascinated by animals, so using animal sounds is a fun and engaging way to get them talking. Plus, words like “baa, moo, and grrrrrr” are great first words because they are short, and you can emphasize the consonant and/or vowel.
To start, I looked for an animal that is a favorite toy or in a favorite book and has an easy sound. For instance, JD really liked farm books, so I chose a sheep. Then, every time we read the book or encountered a sheep, I’d stop, point to the sheep, and say “Look JD, a sheep! The sheep says says ‘Baa!.’ Can you say baa? Let’s try together. Baa.”
Eventually, he started to get excited when we’d see a sheep and say “Baa.” Once he learned that word, I introduced another animal sound, and it became a game that we played throughout the day.
Toddlers are impulsive. Make that trait work for you. When they want something, they want it now, so withhold their desired item to encourage them to talk. Food is a great motivator, but I’ve also had a lot of success with balls and books.
When they start to cry and gesture for the item, pretend that you don’t know what they want and calmly say, “I don’t know what you want. Use your words.”
The first couple of times you do this may be very difficult. I hated watching their little faces go from confusion to frustration, but I reminded myself that I wasn’t depriving them, I was helping them. Stay strong!
It may feel like an eternity before your little one attempts to say the word, and more often than not, they don’t make any attempt the first time that you try this approach.
That’s ok. After giving your toddler a solid opportunity to attempt the word, say “Do you want your [insert item]? Say [annunciate word slowly].”
Now it’s up to you. You can keep withholding the item until your toddler tries to say the word, you can provide a substitute item (i.e. – a banana instead of the cracker they really wanted), or you can say, “When you’re ready to talk, I’m ready to listen” and give them what they want.
Be patient, tough love can take time. Consistency is vital to this approach, and it also helps if you can get other adults or kids on board with this conversation. That way, your toddler hears “Use your words” from their parents, babysitter, grandparent, and sibling. Hearing the same thing from multiple sources can have a big impact.
Everyone likes to hear “Good try” or “Nice work.” Despite the fact that your toddler may love flushing things down the toilet, they really do like to make you happy.
Learning to speak is a daunting task. How confident would you be if you tried to speak a phrase in a new language? How confident would you be if you tried a new language in front of people who natively speak that language? Learning spoken word is a big step and should be treated as such. So praise, praise, praise!
First attempts won’t be perfect. For example, your toddler may say “mi” instead of “milk.” When your toddler finally starts trying to use words, praise them and over-annunciate the word correctly. You might say, “Good job! Milk.”
Reward them by giving them a bear hug or a high-five. After all, learning a new word is something to celebrate!
The emphasis should be placed on their effort, not the end result. Let them know that they are on the right path, and that you are proud of them.