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Baby talk

When it comes to language development, every one-year-old sets their own pace. Read on for the latest word on when to worry and when to relax.

“How many words does your child say?” is the hot topic of conversation among parents of one-year-olds. But keeping a word count can be more nerve-wracking than thrilling if your toddler’s the silent type. Most of the time there’s little cause for alarm. 

“Just as kids vary in when they begin to walk, there’s a wide range of normal when it comes to speech,” says linguistics professor Dr. Katherine Demuth, Ph.D.

The shift from babbling to real words is a slow process that begins shortly after your baby is born. Every time you respond to their cries, you encourage their expressive language. By 12 months, their gurgles and coos have evolved into varied consonant sounds (like m’s, b’s, c’s, and d’s), according to Rhea Paul, Ph.D., editor of The Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research. “Your toddler’s babbling intonation should go up and down like a sentence and perhaps contain a word or two you recognize,” Dr. Paul says. (For instance: “Ball ooh da?”)

But even if your toddler says only a few actual words (by 15 months, tots typically say three words in addition to “mama” and “dada”), your child comprehends much of what you say. You’ll see this receptive language in action when you ask your toddler to follow simple instructions, like “pick up your cup.” Your toddler should also be able to recognize their name, point to objects, identify some parts of their body, and wave bye-bye.


Spotting a delay 

If your one-year-old is making only vowel sounds or if they don’t seem to understand much, consult your doctor. A hearing impairment is the most common cause of both expressive and receptive language delays. Most newborns are screened for hearing problems before leaving the hospital, but there are lots of babies who miss their test or who develop hearing loss later, says pediatrician Dr. Andy Spooner, M.D.. Fluid in the ears or chronic ear infections can affect a baby’s ability to perceive sound and understand speech. If your pediatrician suspects a problem, the pediatrician may recommend seeing an audiologist for a full hearing evaluation.

Otherwise, most doctors adopt a watchful waiting approach until 18 to 24 months. If your child still doesn’t say words by this age, ask for a professional evaluation. The language lag could be a natural developmental delay (common among babies born prematurely) that your child will eventually outgrow. Or, your toddler may need speech therapy to give their talking skills a helping nudge. A speech pathologist can screen for other culprits, including apraxia, a disorder in which oral-motor muscles cannot form words correctly, and developmental disorders, such as cerebral palsy or autism. “Rest assured that kids talk late for many reasons — and not all of them have serious long-term consequences,” Dr. Paul says. “Genetics plays a part too. Toddlers who are late talkers very often have a family member who talked late too.”


Dialogue ‘do’s

Many studies have found a strong relationship between how much parents talk with their babies and how quickly kids acquire language. To get your tot chatting:

Narrate your day. Talk out loud about what you’re doing, and ask your toddler questions. “If you’re doing laundry, say ‘let’s go down to the washing machine. Okay, in goes the soap. Now, the clothes.’ Talk it up, even if you feel silly because your child can’t answer back,” says speech pathologist Pam Quinn.

Be a role model. If your little one says “ba ba” for bottle, use the correct pronunciation when you reply (“yes, here’s your bottle.”) Elaborate on what she says with an additional word, such as, “that’s a big bottle.” This strategy not only increases vocabulary, but also teaches word combinations. But try not to correct them. “Pointing out mistakes can be inhibiting,” Pam says. “Even young kids can start to think they can’t say anything right.”

Wait for it. Give your tot a chance to ask for what they want before answering their need, says speech-language pathologist Denise Boggs Eisenhauer. For example, when you’re rolling a ball with them and you know they want you to roll it back, give your toddler a confused look and say “what do I do?” Pausing for a few seconds will encourage them to communicate.

Keep it real. Don’t overly enunciate or speak in one- or two-word sound bites. “Speak in regular sentences to help your child understand how to put words together into meaningful phrases,” says speech-language pathologist Gayle Sorrentino. This constant exposure to language is the key to enhancing their speech development.


Sandra is an award-winning freelance writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting and consumer issues.


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