My Toddler doesn’t have very Many Words yet—should I be worried?

My Toddler doesn’t have very Many Words yet—should I be worried?

This is one of the most common questions I hear as a pediatric speech-language therapist!  Answering it first requires a definition:  A “late-talker” refers to a child who isn’t yet using any words at 15 months or who hasn’t reached the magic 50-word mark by the time she’s two years old.  If your child fits this description, you are most definitely not alone—research shows that 10-20% of all children fall into the category of late-talker.  Luckily, there are some fairly straight-forward guidelines that can help you decide what you should do about your late-talking toddler.  What’s more, there are strategies you can start using right now to enhance your child’s language.

As a parent of a late-talker, you’re probably wondering whether or not you should have a speech therapist work with your child.   As you ponder this decision, you’ll want to consider the other things your child is doing.  Ask yourself the following:

  • Does she use gestures to try to communicate with you?
  • Does she understand language well?
  • Does she use toys together in pretend play?
  • Does she point out things that interest her?
  • Does she take an interest in other children?
  • Does she use a variety of sounds such as b,p,t,d, m, n, w, and h?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, it’s probably best to have her evaluated through your local early intervention program, if for no other reason than to calm your worries.

If you answered yes to all those questions, however, things get a little bit fuzzier.  Research tells us that many late-talking children who have no other delays will eventually catch up on their own.   We also know, though, that some late-talkers will eventually struggle with language tasks in school such as reading and writing. The benefits of introducing speech therapy when your child is a toddler is that you will be personally guided through the strategies that can help your toddler communicate more effectively, and you may be able to ward off later language difficulties.  If you do decide that speech therapy is the best option for you and your child, you’ll want to talk to your pediatrician, who can help you find the early intervention program in your area.

In the meantime, though, you can start using some strategies with your toddler all on your own.  You can:

  • Read repetitive books and sing familiar songs–doing so helps your toddler predict what language comes next  and learn to say the words inside those routines,
  • Encourage her to imitate you by pairing simple words with simple actions, so that she both sees and hears what she is supposed to do,
  • Help her learn to use pictures to ask for what she wants to reduce her frustration and to teach her that she can communicate with you even if she doesn’t yet have words,
  • Say simple words when looking at books with her, so that she learns to associate the pictures she sees with the words she hears, and
  •  Use baby sign language, which has been shown to promote verbal speech by acting as a bridge between gestures and words.

The key to language learning with toddlers is to keep it fun and simple. And, of course, to enjoy your toddler each step along the way.

About the author

Becca is a pediatric speech-language therapist who believes that all parents should have the power to help their children learn to communicate.  She blogs at Child Talk ,where she doles out tips for improving speech and language, answers parent questions about speech and language development, and shares creative language-based activities. She can also be found on Facebook  and on Twitter .

22 thoughts on “My Toddler doesn’t have very Many Words yet—should I be worried?”

  1. Still Blonde…sometimes when I, as a speech therapist, get a child talking, their parents turn to me and say, “okay, how do we make him stop??” because he’s talking so much. I tell them that’s their job. :) Ha ha.

  2. Sara, so true! Our kids do like to worry us! :) The key, I think, is to know when the “late” is typical and when it is an indicator that something bigger may be going on. Such a fine balance we walk as parents, isn’t it?

  3. Mama Chocolate, how fun to have such a talker! My first was quite the talker, too! It’s amazing to watch, isn’t it? But yes, nice to have strategies in your back pocket if your next one isn’t quite so talkative, or as tidbits to hand out to worried friends.

  4. Janae, so glad that early intervention helped! There really is something to having someone come out and guide you through some suggestions. Seemingly simple ideas can make a big difference!

  5. We started our daughter with speech therapy just after her second birthday because she barely had 10 words and just wasn’t even trying to imitate language. We could tell she was understanding everything and she could generally get across what she wanted but the speech therapy has been wonderful. I always said she would be using full sentences when she started talking because you could just tell that it was all in there but wasn’t coming out yet. Sure enough after 6 months of speech therapy her vocabulary has exploded and she is communicating complex ideas. We still have a lot to work on because there are some sounds she is having trouble with but I’ve been thrilled with her progress!

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  6. Gahhh! I can’t imagine a late talker. I had the opposite issue–I know it’s not a problem though but a blessing. My son is 20 and still hasn’t stopped talking…love him!

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  7. My son did not speak at all until he was three. He said one sentence “I like that” about a Christmas present that wasn’t even his and then I hardly ever heard a peep out of him. He did go to speach and occupational therapy from three through kindergarden. He’s 19 and in college now and perfectly fine. No one would ever know that he had delays in speach.

  8. When my daughter turned 2 last year she was not saying any words at all and her behavior was out of control due to the fact that she could not communicate with us. We had her evaluated by ECI and they have been coming to the house twice a month since last November. We have a Behavioral Specialist, Speech Therapist and an Occupation Therapist. Since she has been getting the therapy she has done so much better. She is still not where she should be but at least she is getting better. She can now communicate with us using one or 2 words and that to me is wonderful! Thanks so much for the great post!

  9. I live in Utah and got a free evaluation for my 2 year old last year. I found out he was in the 2nd percentile for speech! They assigned someone to come out to our house, two times a month, for the past 8 month. She worked with him and gave me a ton of additional ideas to help him. He’s doing great now. I’m so glad I had him tested.

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