toddler not talking

Why is Your Child Not Talking? 10 Things They Need to Be Able to Do First

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Hello there, mama (or papa, concerned uncle, babysitter, or teacher)! Let me say, thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you’re here! Are you trying to figure out why you have a child who is not talking? Did you know there are several skills your baby needs BEFORE they say their first real word? It’s not that easy to coordinate everything in order to say that one, beautiful first word! There are a whole bunch of things your little one has to be able to do first! So here is a list of the skills needed BEFORE they say that precious first word!

Why is your child not talking?

There are so many reasons why your child may not be talking! It might be that they are more focused on motor skills and movement. Your child might be doing great in communication but NOT using words. There are some toddlers that are not talking but are understanding everything. This might be because they just need to be encouraged to use words more often. If your child is not talking, check out my article on late talkers.

Your child also might have a hearing impairment that makes it hard for them to hear and therefore, use language. It’s important to get your child’s hearing checked to make sure this is not a problem. There also might be another underlying cause that has to do with a physical abnormality. If that’s the case, be sure to talk with your doctor.

Another reason your toddler might not be talking is if they have a language or speech delay or autism. If you think your child might have a delay or autism, check out my article here to help you understand the difference.

The 10 Things Your Child Has to Do BEFORE They Start Talking

1. Reacts to environmental sounds.

What it means: First, your child needs to be able to hear properly in order to say meaningful words. If they aren’t hearing loud sounds around them, then they might not be hearing you. And just like if you are learning a new language, you have to be able to hear it before you can start speaking the language!

Age range when most children can do this: 0-3 months

How to work on it: If you are concerned that your child cannot hear, you need to check in with your doctor. Ear infections and hearing loss can greatly impact your baby’s communication. The sooner you get hearing issues identified, the better! It’s amazing the type of technology and services we have for children with hearing loss!

2. Responds (in some form) to your voice.

What it means: At a young age (in the first three months of life) your child should be reacting to your voice when you talk. They may quiet down when you are talking to them, or give you a beautiful smile to let you know they are tuning in to what you have to say. (They don’t understand it just yet, but they are working on that!).  

Age range when most children can do this: 0-3 months

How to work on it: If your child is not responding to your voice just yet, make sure you are taking time to talk with them directly. Even if they are only a few months old, they want to hear your voice! Look at them when you talk and use silly sounds and big facial expressions when you interact with them.

3. Coos and babbles

What it means: Cooing and babbling are the sweet little baby sounds everyone loves to hear. Cooing is when a baby makes sounds other than crying. It is usually just vowel sounds like “oo” or “ah”. Babbling is a little more advanced and involves repeated sounds that combine consonants and vowels. Often babies’ first babbles are “babababa”, “dadada”, or “mamama”.

Age range when most children can do this: 0-3 months

How to work on it: Talk to your baby both in your regular voice, and feel free to use a little “baby talk”. Baby talk just means that you use a “sing-song” voice and you maybe slow down how quickly you speak. This can be a fun, engaging way to talk to your baby that encourages them to talk as well.

4. Localizes sounds

What it means: Localizing sound means that your child hears a sound and can figure out where it’s coming from. You know your child can do this when they look in the general direction the sound is coming from.

Age range when most children can do this: 4-6 months

How to work on it: As with step #1, if your child is not localizing sound, be sure that their hearing is in the typical range. You can talk to your child’s doctor about getting them tested formally. If your child’s hearing comes back normal (yay!) then experiment with making different fun sounds. You might use silly voices, or get some instruments or make animal noises. Make it fun and try to position yourself in different spots around them so they practice hearing from different areas of the room.

child not talking

5. Responds to their own name

What it means: Responding to their own name doesn’t mean the child needs to reply using a word, but rather acknowledging that you are saying something specific to them. A lot of times, this just means that your baby or toddler will look at you after you say their name. They may also respond by making a sound or waving.

Age range when most children can do this: 7-12 months

How to work on it: Be sure to say your child’s name often. Incorporate it into songs you sing. (Check out my whole post about all the benefits of singing to your child.) You can also play little games of hide and seek, saying “Where’s _________? Where are you, _________ ?” Make it silly and interactive. This will help them get used to their name and hopefully understand that it refers to them!

6. Understands simple words

What it means: Your child should be able to understand simple, everyday words. These might be words like “no”, “food”, “milk” or a name of someone familiar. If you have a toddler who is not talking, it’s important that they first understand words before they can use them meaningfully.

Age range when most children can do this: 4-6 months

How to work on it: Repeat simple words and use them in short phrases so they are easy to understand. Use the same word for the same object consistently (ex. always say “milk” when they are breastfeeding or taking a bottle. Don’t use other words interchangeably so they don’t get too confused).

Additionally, connect words to pictures or objects. When you are reading a book to your child, point to pictures and label them with a single word. When you are playing with toys or objects, point to what you are talking about or hold it up, and say the word.

7. Imitates you in a variety of activities

What it means: Imitating just means your child is trying to do what you do. Usually, imitation means the child will repeat what you do right after you do it. Imitation can be through sounds, words, actions, and even facial expressions. Imitation usually starts with social smiles and eventually leads to imitating words, phrases, and sentences.

Age range when most children can do this: 7-12 months

How to work on it: Even if your toddler is not talking, you can work on imitation. Start by imitating your child. This usually starts simply by smiling at them, and then they smile back (eventually). But you can make it even more fun, by imitating them. Make the same faces they make, and say the same sounds. You can make it into a little game. When they see you imitating them, your baby will pick up on it and hopefully try to imitate you right back!

8. Points to objects

What it means: Your child should be able to point to objects using their index finger. They may point at something just to show you what they are looking at, or they may point in order to request something. Both types of pointing are trying to communicate something and therefore support language.

Age range when most children can do this: 7-12 months

How to work on it: Model pointing when you are showing them something. Point to interesting things as you go on a walk, or as you play. If they have cereal every morning, point to the cereal and say, “Do you want cereal?”. This will help them to see the importance of pointing. You can also help them by using your hand to help them make a pointing finger and practice pointing with them.

One last way to work on pointing is to point to pictures in a book. Show the child which objects you are talking about by pointing to each one and saying the name of the object.

9. Joint attention

What it means: Joint attention is when a child and a grown-up are looking at the same object together. Both people must be looking at the same thing at the same time. Additionally, the child should be aware that they are looking at the same object at the same time as the adult. You can tell that the child knows it’s happening if they look from the object to the adult and back again.

Although this sounds confusing and weird, there are a lot of studies that support the importance of joint attention. If children can share an experience (like looking at something together) it shows that they are aware of others and can communicate with them in a simple way.

Age range when most children can do this: 9-12 months

How to work on it: Joint attention can be started by you (the adult) or by your child. So you can help your child work on this skill by having a fun toy that you point to and have them look at it with you. The toy should be at least a few feet away from you. In order to really get their attention, use a toy that moves or makes sounds. If your child looks at it with you, then they are using joint attention! Yay!

If your child is having a hard time looking at the toy, make sure you are pointing to it in an obvious way and saying “look!”. This will help get their attention.

For more information, check out this awesome research article all about it.

10. Turn taking

What it means: Turn-taking is as simple as it sounds. Turn-taking just means going back and forth between you and your child (or your child and someone else). Turn-taking can be passing an object back and forth, making sounds, or moving in a certain way.

Age range when most children can do this: 9-12 months

How to work on it: Help your little one practice turn-taking with an object. Let them have a toy, and then put your hand out and say “my turn”. You can also be the one to start with the object and say “your turn”. It might be helpful if you take the toy (gently) from them and then give it back. Make sure you say “my turn” and “your turn” every time so they know what is happening. This will help it to be clear and more purposeful in the future.

If you want more info on speech and language development, check out the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association article right here.

toddler not talking

When should you worry if your toddler is not talking?

This is a big question! If you feel like your baby or toddler has a speech delay, talk to your doctor first. They will have resources they can give you in order to get your child evaluated.

By six months your child should be babbling, which means they use some consonants and vowels in combination (like “bababa”). Around one year old, your child should be saying or signing their first word. Kids two and older should be able to independently say at least 50 words. For more in-depth information on speech and language norms, check out my article on how to know if your toddler needs speech therapy.

Next Steps If Your Toddler is Not Talking

  1. Check out my article on whether or not your child needs speech therapy (as mentioned above).
  2. If you are still feeling concerned, talk to your doctor and ask for a speech evaluation.
  3. Work with your child using my strategies from the “Late Talker” article where I give all of my favorite tips to help your toddler start talking.
  4. Leave a comment if you have any questions about your child not talking.

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