What to look for in communication skills in your toddler

October 11, 2017


This post is dedicated to what to look for in speech + language skills as your child moves from infant to toddler to preschooler.  At this time of year, children of all ages are settling into their routines.  Also at this time of year, parents are often standing nearby and wondering, “Is my kid talking enough?”

I’m here to remind you first and foremost that there is a BIG RANGE to development.  Infants, toddlers and young children may develop some skills while others are on pause. For example, there may be a big burst in their gross motor skills, like walking. While these skills advance, their sleep skills or feeding might plateau for a bit.

Learning is not always linear, exact or by the book (whichever book or website you choose to look at). But learning and development are about movement forward.  If children’s curiosity, interests, interactions or movements are pushing ahead, then development is happening.  If your child seems stuck or not taking in information or learning new things, then it’s reason for some concern.

The list below is NOT EXHAUSTIVE. It is a short list of things you should be seeing around these ages. Think of them as highlights of what to look for across the ages and when to worry.

What to look for in general with learning:

  1. First give your child (no matter how old) some space and time to see what they do on their own for a few minute intervals.
  2. Notice if they are seeking out information, are curious about what’s around them and/or if they are looking for people/objects/actions.
  3. Notice if your child is trying something new and then overtime repeating it for practice. These are things like pulling themselves up to stand in the crib, then some time later, pulling themselves up on a shelf. Or for an older child like a 3 year old – this may look like trying a new puzzle, then staying with it and attempting to put a few pieces in.

When to worry in general:

If your child does not smile, turn towards people or express curiosity in some form over time, then talk to your pediatrician about these observations.

What to look for in speech and language skills:

Young babies newborn to 3 months:

-  look for smiles, look for patterns that soothes them when upset

- listen for pleasing sounds (like when the baby is content or relaxed)

- listen for different cries for different needs (hungry, startled)

fun fact: newborns can only see 8-12 inches away,  then it gradually increases.

When to worry: your child does not startle or react to loud/sudden sounds, your child does not smile.

4 to 6 months:

-  look for babies to pay more attention to sound

- look  for babies to sit up when supported

- listen for early sounds (laughs, ahs, grunts, some  consonant and vowel sounds emerging – w, m, b, p)

fun fact: babies ribcages expand during this time and their voice box (larynx) elongates – all getting ready for beginning babbling

When to worry: your child does not make much noise or sounds throughout the day, your child is NOT expressing joy or excitement either in facial expressions or sounds, your child is not looking for the source of sounds (such as your voice or a toy that makes noise)

6 months to 1 year:

-  lots of motor learning here (rolling, sitting, reaching, pulling)

- curiosity expands (physically exploring more, cognitively, trying to figure things out: shaky/noisy toys, pulling items closer to inspect)

- babbling of sounds (repeated sounds ba-ba-ba and variety of sounds da-da da- bo-da-dee dee) should begin and expand, moving towards single, true words around a year to 15 months

- gestures advance here (pointing, facial expressions, holding their arms up to  you to be picked up)

fun fact:  by 10 months, full color vision has developed and distance vision matures.

When to worry: your child does not babble at all, your child does not seek out toys, materials or familiar items or your child does not understand the routine of peek a boo and/or your child does not gesture (point, reach up for you to pick them up, waving hi/bye)

Toddlers (approximately 1 year to 3 years)

- moving towards single words to phrases to short sentences

- large burst in terms of comprehension/understanding

- between 2 and 3, should be hearing more speech sounds (t,d ,h, n g, k) - sounds may be left off at the beginning or ends of words (hat – “ha”, car – “ar”

fun facts:

- by 18 months,  kids should be saying around 20 different words

- by 24 months, kids should be saying around 50 different words

When to worry:  if your child is using a few words or no real words at 18 months, if they are not stringing words together in little phrases at 2 years (no milk, more ball), if they are frustrated frequently throughout the day by their inability to communicate what they want + they do not attempt other ways to get what they want (pulling you towards something, giving you a bag that is too hard to open).

Here are some excellent websites for further explanation:

* American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA)

Identify the Signs

* Zero to Three: Brain Development

* Parents Magazine: When to Worry

I always tell parents, if you are worried or have concerns, keep asking the questions and find out further information.  You know your kids best. Ask the questions. Then you’ll get more information about your child and can use this information, or not, to plan the next step, if any.

Talk to your pediatricians. Be sure to talk about how your child operates, if they gesture, make noises, approach or retreat from people. Then you can get a bigger picture of your child’s speech and language skills, as opposed to checking something off in a developmental box.

In the next series of posts I’ll touch on what to look for/when to worry with 3 to 5 year olds and what you can do when they worry sets in across the ages.

For now, go back to your bouncy, crying,  laughing, curious busy children. Thanks as always for reading.  Till next time, take care.

Vanessa D’Auria is a licensed speech-language pathologist providing home-based services in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. For more information about Vanessa, visit speechtherapyvanessadauria.com or to ask speech/language questions, email directly at speechtherapynyc@gmail.com.



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