Waiting for your child to say her first words is majorly exciting—but it can also be majorly nerve-wracking. Between watching how other toddlers are developing, reading parenting magazines, and scrolling through your favorite blogs, how can you tell whether what your tot’s doing (or isn’t doing) is normal?
Here’s permission to breathe a sigh of relief: There’s a range of what’s considered normal in language development, says Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, Ph.D, a licensed clinical psychologist and child development consultant in New York City. For instance, one toddler might say only a few words very clearly, while another could have a larger vocabulary but has trouble with pronunciation.
Still, most toddlers do follow a general language development roadmap. Here’s what to expect and when:
Around 9 months
Your tot is nearing the beginning stages of non-verbal communication. Likely, she’ll be pointing out objects to you, which is her first way of communicating with you.
Around 12 months
Yay, the first word! Babies typically start verbalizing sounds and words that they hear frequently in their daily routines such as “hi,” “bye,” or some version of “Mommy,” or “Daddy.”
Now’s also the time to start watching what you say. “Early words serve as one of many ways in which your child mirrors her environment,” Cohen says. “For instance, if your 12-month-old starts saying, “No!,” consider whether you’ve been overusing this word and stock up on some alternatives.”
Still haven’t heard a peep? Don’t worry. It’s normal for babies to stay quiet up until 15 months. If she still hasn’t spoken by then, talk to her pediatrician.
18 to 24 months
Now’s the time when your toddler’s language development starts to take off like a rocket—from just a few words to one or two thousand by her third birthday. She’ll also start combining words into short sentences.
Does your toddler have a speech delay?
Let’s say your 18-month-old says less than 20 words, but her communication skills have been progressing with sounds and gestures. If she can understand simple questions or requests (such as, “Are you hungry?”) it’s likely her vocabulary will start expanding soon. If you’re anxious, it never hurts to talk to your pediatrician, but it’s also okay to wait and see whether your toddler starts saying more words by age two.
Boosting your toddler’s language development
No matter how many words your child is saying, there’s plenty you can do at home to help her learn more, Cohen says. Here, three simple ways you can your toddler’s communication every day.
Talk, talk, talk
Chat with your child all the time, every day. If you can, start during pregnancy: A recent study shows that babies begin learning the distinctive sounds of their mother’s language while in utero.
Use sound in play
Get down on the floor and follow your child’s lead. Try using rhythms and describe the play that is taking place, “Now we are drumming slowly; now let’s go fast, fast, faster!” Rhythms represent symbolic play, which help your child hone her communication skills by imitating the reciprocal flow of spoken conversation.
But don’t get caught up in reading the words exactly as they appear on the page. Instead, use them as a way to engage your child in thought and conversation: Go off script, let her point things out and talk about what interests her, and make connections between the story and real life, Cohen says.
Is she a normal talker? Here’s a rundown of common communication milestones—plus how to boost your toddler’s language skills.