How Can You Help Your Infant or Toddler with Speech and Language Development?
So you now have that precious baby or toddler as part of your life. Whether it was a long planned event or a surprise, one thing is typically true. You have a bond and natural love for you child that is unlike anything else you have ever experienced! You enjoy your child’s expressions of wonder, excitement and surprise and rush in to offer comfort when he or she is afraid, tired or feeling ill. You relish all the firsts, like a first smile, first pull up into a sitting position, first step, first word and first use of a spoon! Your life has changed forever with the addition of a new person into your family – with the opportunities, challenges and memories that accompany your expanding family. Your routines and interactions become different as your day now becomes full of play time, book reading, visits to zoos, and other child-focused, and relationship building activities. Your life will also include childcare, play dates, pediatric visits and other important supports for your child. If you are wise you will take time to savor many of these integral parts of family life.
So what can parents do to help their young children? Obviously we need to nurture our children and spend quality time with them.
A great document, Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Infants and Toddler Programs * was developed and adopted by the Michigan State Board of Education in 2013. It offers important guidelines for fostering positive early childhood development. Among the recommendations for fostering social and emotional well-being, are the following:
- “provide a stimulating environment’,
- “handle young children in a gentle, confident and respectful way”,
- allow “unhurried time and opportunity to build trusting and caring relationships”,
- build in “one-on-one interactions”,
- provide “predictable, dependable environments”,
- and encourage and support choice-making activities and independent activities (such as dressing and self-feeding).
These parenting/caregiver strategies reinforce the importance of intentional relationship building for positive child development. Intentionality takes time so that these activities and life styles become a focus and not something that you fit in later when you have some spare time.
One thing parents can do is become more aware of the importance of child development. We want our children to enjoy their lives in the present while at the same time we hope to prepare them for meaningful, successful lives as adults. Child development falls across many domains: cognitive, communicative, social/emotional, adaptive, physical, and spiritual. Each of these important domains contribute to how our children will “survive and thrive” in an increasingly fast-paced, complicated culture.
Another reason you need to understand normal development, to some degree, is so you can recognize when your child may seem a little challenged in an area of development. You also need to be open to comments from others, such as teachers, physicians, friends and family members who might express a concern about something they observe. That doesn’t mean that you accept outside input without question, but that it gives you something to research and check out.
Though there are many important developmental domains, this article will focus on speech and language development, offering some understanding of normal development as well as additional strategies caregivers/parents can incorporate into daily routines to foster good communication skills for infants and toddlers. Keep in mind the time and relationship building that has been previously mentioned. Not only is this important for overall development, but foundational for communication. Children are most likely to develop their best speech and language when they see the purpose of interactions – for requesting, commenting, and responding.
Speech and Language Development for Infants and Toddlers
Speech and language would be considered two facets of communication. Very simply, speechis the verbal means of communicating through the use of sounds and words so it is more related to motor and muscle development, paired with the motivation and ability to communicate. Language refers to how a person uses (expressive) and understands (receptive) speech (or another method such as sign or pictures) to communicate, thus supplying the understanding, motivation, and cognitive ability to use speech for communication.
Infants and toddlers generally move through predictable stages of speech and language development. Below are listed some very general benchmarks to look for in your child.
- begins with reflexive sounds such as burping and crying.
- moves through cooing and gooing, raspberries and vocal play with labials such as p/b/ and /m/.
- an infant at this early stage will be startled by loud noises, turn towards a speaker, and have a differentiated cry for different emotional or physical states such as hunger or sleepiness.
- more varied vocal play and babbling, with some consonant-vowel and vowel-consonant combinations.
- vocalizations in response to a speaker and more direct eye contact.
- more babbling, which may sound speech-like in its timing.
- reduplication, which is repetition of syllables, such as bu-bu and ma-ma.
- At this age imitation of actions, expressions, and meaningful sounds begin as well as looking for named family members and objects.
- syllable combinations become more varied, such as pipopi.
- most speech sounds are produced and a few meaningful words such as mama or baba (bottle or baby) may be present.
- there is an explosion of receptive and expressive language skills at this time with appropriate responses to many words such as “no” and their names, clapping and waving on request and then the use of physical actions such as pulling or pushing to get a need met.
There are varying opinions on when an infant becomes a toddler. Some sources associate the beginning of toddlerhood with standing physical mobility, through cruising around furniture to starting first steps. As there is a broad normal range for these motor skills, we can include speech development skills under infancy for the stage from 12-18 months.
- These transitional skills from infancy to toddlerhood would include the use of 3 to 20 single words (typically including “no” and “more”), as well as the use of “mama” and “dada” in a meaningful way.
- Some in this age group will begin to put two words together, such as “all gone” or “outside”. Typically during this period the ability to point to named or wanted objects, increased imitation and responding to simple “wh” questions or simple directions like “in” or “on” will emerge.
- toddlers will develop an expressive vocabulary of approximately 50 words and will understand (receptive language) around 300 words. Generally, understanding of a word comes before production.
- they will use words socially such as “hi” and “bye” and will name familiar objects.
- use of two-word phrases, possessives (my), and responses to yes/no questions with a head nod will emerge.
- will typically follow two part requests such as “get the cup and give it to me”.
- they will produce close to 200 words and understand around 500.
- a toddler will often delete final consonants (da for dog) and use substitutions (wabbit for rabbit).
- the average length of a phrase will be 3 words, “Daddy go bye-bye” or “Want more juice”
- they will use their language skills to ask questions such as “daddy go?”.
- they may also use regular plurals and ask and answer simple “wh” questions.
- by this stage a toddler has doubled their receptive vocabulary to over 900 words and can typically produce 500 words.
- phrase lengths have increased to 3.5 words and the grammatical production and understanding includes third person pronouns.
- this age group also understands function, such as “show me what you color with”.
These are some very basic milestones. For additional milestone information, visit,
Parent and Caregiver Strategies for Infants and Toddlers
There are many things, in addition to the previously mentioned, that can optimize communication development in infants and toddlers. These are just a few important strategies you can put in place.
- Build in lots of quality interactions throughout the day, whether it is to cuddle, rock your child to sleep, sing a song, or read a book. It is important to connect and communicate how much you love and enjoy your child in tangible ways.
- If your infant or toddler spends time in day care, be sure that environment will provide similar opportunities to connect with caring staff. Be sure the staff to child ratio is low enough to insure quality one-on-one time your child.
- Structure the environment for opportunities to interact frequently throughout the day.
- Have a regular schedule and establish routines that become familiar.
- Have developmentally appropriate, high interest toys, activities and social opportunities available related to the preferred toys/activities.
- Have some toys accessible for choice making, but place some favored toys out of reach to encourage requesting.
- Label areas and have picture books available to encourage early literacy and receptive understanding and spend time reading with your young child.
- Use artwork throughout play areas to promote communication.
- Follow your infant or toddler’s lead by responding to their interests and communications since children are more likely to stay engaged and communicate about toys or activities that they choose.
- Use these child lead activities to expand communications, by commenting, labeling or imitating.
- join in to a child’s activities such as playing with clay, building with blocks, labeling and commenting as you go. “I have a red block, you have a blue block”. “the baby is hungry. You are feeding the baby”.
- With books, label characters, feelings and actions. “The monkey is jumping!” “The farmer is feeding his cow. The cow is happy, Moo!”
- Imitate vocalizations or words. This communicates that you are listening and understand and that you want to interact.
- For infants, reflecting back their cooing and babbling lets them know you want to interact with them and models the turn taking aspect of communication.
- If a toddler’s communication is unclear and you have a good understanding of what he or she is trying to say, you can respond with the correct form, not as a correction but as a restatement.
- Child says “bubu” and you say, “it is a big bubble”.
- providing models of simple relevant words and phrases will help young children internalize language sounds, phrase structure and also attach meaning to spoken language.
- Limit technology: from phones, to tablets, to television. There is a great deal of research that supports no benefit for children under the age of two years from watching television or having independent time with other technology. It may act as a break for busy families, but it should be greatly limited for the sake of the child. The greatest challenges for development is that increased technology or media typically translates into less time interacting with real people as well as negative impacts on cognition and educational success.
The following suggestions come directly from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
- Allow children to explore digital materials in the context of human interactions, with an adult as mediator and co-player. As with shared book reading, use shared technology time as an opportunity to talk with children, use new vocabulary, and model appropriate use.
- Avoid passive screen time. While some parents may claim that baby videos calm an otherwise fussy child, there is little research to suggest that infants and toddlers learn from watching videos. If infants are distressed, they need the comfort of a caring adult, not an electronic toy.
- Use technology as an active and engaging tool when appropriate to provide infants and toddlers with access to images of their families and friends, animals and objects in the environment, and a wide range of diverse images of people and things they might not otherwise encounter (photos of children from other countries, for example).
- Incorporate assistive technologies as appropriate for children with special needs and/or developmental delays.
The AmericanAcademy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2011 titled Media Use by Children Younger than 2 Years. The following is a compelling quote from that statement regarding television:
“Even if the program is not intended for the child to watch, research has found that children play and interact less with adults when a television is on, perhaps because the adult’s attention is focused on the television program. A study that examined 12-, 24-, and 36-month-olds found that background television not only reduced the length of time that a child played but also that it reduced the child’s focused attention during play. 34 Children stop to look at a televised program, halt their ongoing play, and move on to a different activity after the interruption. 34 Although most research has been performed on adolescents, study results suggest that background media might interfere with cognitive processing, memory, and reading comprehension. 4 , 34 ,–, 3”
To read the full statement visit: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/128/5/1040.full
No doubt in our high paced culture, we are all becoming more attached to our technology. When it comes to our very young children, we need to be mindful of the immediate and long-term impacts of too much technology on cognition as well as the ability to form good communication and relationship skills. Everything we do shapes us so now is the time to make life style and parenting choices that will best help our children become proficient and content with their lives. In the present and future.
If you suspect that your infant or toddler is falling behind in speech and language development, share your concerns with your pediatrician. You may also want to contact a speech-language pathologist to have an assessment completed. A full evaluation will test all domains of speech and language development, providing a clear picture of your child’s communication level and any needs that would benefit from treatment. Speech & Occupational Therapy of North Texas utilizes a partnership model, providing demonstration of strategies and parent training to encourage good communication development. Evaluations are typically covered by most insurance plans. For questions about your child’s development or to learn about your insurance coverage, contact us at 972-424-0148. We are here to help your child and family!