Talking To Your Toddler

Your role in encouraging your child to communicate.

19/10/2016 09:12 | Updated 31 October 2016 via Getty Images

It’s an exciting time as your baby develops into a toddler and starts saying their first words and expressing (sometimes strongly!) their likes and dislikes.

Your baby has been learning how to communicate, first by crying when tired or unable to settle, then by smiling and babbling. When you talk, listen and respond to them, you are already helping them with their language.

It’s important to remember that all children are different and your child may develop at a faster or slower rate than other toddlers. Learning to talk is a complicated process and no child is word-perfect straight away.

Around their first birthday, your toddler may begin to use one or first words with meaning. Their first words will probably be a variation of ‘dada’ or ‘mummma’. Don’t be disgruntled if your baby’s father wins the first word – ‘dada’ is easier for him to say. Your child will find hard consonants like p and b easier to say initially.

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Your toddler will quickly collect new words and meanings – and enjoy trying them out. By 18 months, they may have six to 20 simple words like ‘hello’ and ‘teddy’. By the age of three, they will have amassed a vocabulary of up to 300 words and be able to talk in complete sentences and follow instructions.

As your toddler learns to talk and walk and becomes an individual with strongly held preferences, it’s inevitable they will have episodes of frustration – those famous toddler tantrums – when they can’t fully express what they want or understand why they aren’t allowed to do something. Try to listen and respond to your child (even if you’re distracted by older children, you’re driving or preparing food), so they don’t feel frustrated and disregarded.

So what can parents do to help their toddlers learn to express themselves?

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Show and tell

Talk TO your toddler, not over their head. Use eye-to-eye contact and make your face expressive. Get your child's attention by saying their name at the start of a sentence or instruction. When you’re going about your daily routine and when you are out and about, talk about what you’re doing and what's around you. You’re encouraging your child to connect words with actions and objects. Slow down and simplify your language so your child can focus on the key words.

Introduce new words

Repeat their words back, but with an extra word or two. For example, if he says ‘a dog’, you can say ‘it’s a little black dog’. This way you’re increasing their vocabulary about things that have already captured their interest. Also, you can increase vocabulary by offering your toddler options – do you want teddy or dolly? And when your child mispronounces a word, simply repeat it back correctly - if your toddler says 'ca', you say 'yes, it's a cat.'

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Enjoy singing and rhymes

Nursery rhymes and songs help your baby to understand the importance of different sounds. Toddlers love repetition and they can join in as they learn to recognise the words. Link simple words to actions your toddler can learn from you – the shape of a star for Twinkle Twinkle, rowing motions for Row, Row The Boat.

Don’t be shy of singing in front of your child - they will love the familiarity of the sound of your voice. This is also a good time to join a toddler and baby singing group.

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Read books together

Continue enjoying books and simple stories together, especially those with rhyming and interesting pictures. You don’t have to stick to the story; by turning the pages and pointing out interesting things you’re teaching your child to associate objects, emotions and actions with words.

But your child will also love the familiar speech patterns and repetitions of favourite books. There’s a reason why rhyming books are so loved – the sounds and repetitions are fun for children and reading parents. At this stage you’re absolutely not trying to teach your child to read, simply enjoying cuddles and relaxing time together. Use different voices for different characters and raise and lower your voice. Your toddler will have favourite books they want read over and over again. This is all part of learning to talk as they enjoy the excitement of knowing what is going to happen and the familiarity of the same story – soon your toddler may be able to ‘read’ it to you while turning the pages and imitating the rise and fall of your voice. It’s very cute.

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Watch their screen time

Your toddler is growing up in a digital age, when access to screens has never been greater. Nevertheless, the recommended screen time for under-twos watching an age-appropriate television programme or using an educational app on your tablet is still only half an hour a day. Try to avoid using screens as a babysitter; watch with your toddler so you can talk together about what you’re seeing. Reading books together and imaginative play is better for helping them learn new language.

If you’re worried about your child’s speech, talk to your health visitor or GP. It’s likely they will reassure you that your child’s speech is developing normally, or refer you to a speech and language therapist for an assessment.

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