Toddler talking and communication: what to expect and how to help

Toddler talking and communication: what to expect and how to help

Toddler talking: what to expect

In the toddler years, your child's language starts to explode, as your child moves from using single words to putting together simple sentences. Your child is also starting to understand and follow simple requests, like 'Bring me your book' or 'Wave bye-bye'.

But toddlers often don't have the words to express big emotions or talk about complex experiences. With your help, your child will start learning how to use words to communicate better.

Helping toddlers learn to talk and communicate

You don't need to 'teach' your toddler to talk. He'll learn through everyday interactions, especially with you.

When you're with your child, it's all about tuning in and noticing what your child is interested in. Then you can make a comment or ask a question, and give your child time to respond. For example, if your toddler points to a beetle in the garden, you could say, 'Look at the little green beetle. I wonder what it's doing'. Then wait and see how your child responds.

When you share moments like these with your child, it's important to give your child time to find words for her ideas. This is about waiting to hear what your child says, rather than trying to put words into her mouth.

And when your child responds, it's important to show you're really listening. You can do this by making lots of eye contact and saying things like 'You think the beetle is going for a walk? Yes, there it goes!' When you do this, you send the message that what your child is saying is important to you.

Simple and meaningful interactions like these encourage your child to talk more and use more words. They also help your child learn about the pattern of conversations.

Helping toddlers turn body language and feelings into words

In the toddler years, children often use body language when they don't have the words to express ideas and feelings. For example, your child might tug on your pants to be picked up, shake or nod his head, or reach for something he wants.

This is a great time to encourage your child to use words. You can do this by repeating back what you think your child wants. For example, 'You look hungry. Do you want more apple?'

You can help your child understand how words, feelings and body language go together by talking about them and making connections. For example, 'Thanks for showing me the paint is knocked over. I can see you're really sad your picture got messed up'. This links the feeling with the word 'sad'.

Understanding feelings and being able to talk about them are important steps towards self-regulation.

Tips to get toddlers talking

Here are some practical, everyday ideas to get your toddler talking and help her learn more words:

  • Read together and share stories. Stories that have word patterns, rhymes and colourful pictures often capture toddler interest and attention.
  • Sing songs or say rhymes with your child. This helps him to understand different word sounds - and it's fun. If you need help remembering the words of songs and rhymes, check out our Baby Karaoke.
  • When you play with your toddler, use words to describe what's happening - for example, 'Push the ball back to Mummy' and 'You got the ball!'
  • Give your child choices using words and objects. For example, you could hold up two pairs of shoes and say, 'We're going outside. Would you rather wear your red boots or your blue shoes?'
  • When your child uses 'made-up' verbs like 'goed', repeat the sentence back with the correct word. For example, 'Yes, the man went out the door'.
  • When your toddler uses simple word combinations like 'Dog go away' or 'Daddy come here', repeat the words back to your child in full sentences. For example, 'You want Daddy to make the dog go away?'

Tips to help toddlers understand words

It's easy to forget that children don't understand everything we say. Here are some ideas to try when your toddler seems puzzled by something you've said:

  • Try saying it in different ways. For example, 'Put the blocks in the box', or 'Here's the box. Put the blocks in it', or 'Take the blocks to the box, and put them in'.
  • Try to use the same words to describe things. If you repeat the same words, your child will start to understand them. For example, you might always use the word 'pyjamas' when you talk about what your toddler wears to bed.
  • When you need to give instructions or requests, make them clear and limit them to one or two steps - for example, 'Lids on the markers. Then put the markers in the tub'.

Speak with a child health professional if your toddler isn't using gestures like head nods or pointing, or if she isn't using words to communicate.