Toddler talking: what to expect
In the toddler years, your child starts to use recognisable words and simple sentences. At first, your child uses early words to name things they can see, like ‘bird’, ‘stick’, ‘moon’ or ‘teddy’. They might also use words to ask you for something – for example, ‘Carry me’, ‘bottle’, ‘banana’ or ‘milk’.
As your child gets older, they start to use language to talk about things they did in the past or to guess what might happen next.
Your child will also start to understand some of your words and follow simple requests like ‘Bring me your book’ or ‘Wave bye-bye’.
Your child will probably enjoy joining in with others to sing familiar songs and rhymes. They might also like making animal and other noises as they play with their toys.
Helping toddlers learn to talk and communicate
You don’t need to ‘teach’ toddlers to talk. Your child learns to talk through everyday interactions, especially with you.
When you’re with your child, it’s all about tuning in and noticing what your child is interested in. Then you can comment or ask a question and give your child time to respond. For example, if your child points to a beetle in the garden, you could say, ‘Look at the little green beetle. I wonder what it’s doing’. Then wait and see how your child responds.
When you share moments like these with your child, it’s important to give your child time to find words for their ideas. This is about waiting to hear what your child says, rather than saying the words for them.
When your child responds, it’s important to show you’re really listening. You can do this by making plenty of eye contact and saying things like ‘You think the beetle is going for a walk? Yes, there it goes!’ When you do this, you send the message that what your child is saying is important to you. You can also send this message by linking later conversations to your child’s experience. For example, you might see a picture of a beetle in the book and say, ‘There’s a little beetle. That’s like the one we saw today’.
Simple and meaningful interactions like these encourage your child to talk more and use more words. They help your child learn about the pattern of conversations and encourage your child to use words to understand their world.
Back-and-forth interactions with your child build your relationship. They help your toddler feel loved, safe and secure, which is good for their wellbeing and development.
Helping toddlers turn wants, needs and emotions into words
In the toddler years, children don’t always have words to express their wants, needs and emotions. They often use body language or other kinds of nonverbal communication, like crying, instead.
For example, your child might:
- tug on your pants to be picked up
- shake or nod their head
- reach for something they want
- jump up and down if they’re excited
- cry if a toy breaks or they hurt themselves.
These are great times to encourage your child to use words. You can do this by repeating back what you think your child wants or needs. For example, ‘You look hungry. Do you want more apple? Yes or no?’
You can also help your child understand how words go together with needs, wants and emotions by talking about them and making connections. For example, ‘Thanks for showing me the paint is knocked over. I can see you’re really sad that your picture got messed up’. This links the emotion with the word ‘sad’.
Tips to get toddlers talking
Here are some everyday ideas to get your child talking and help them learn more words:
- Read together and share stories. Stories that have word patterns, rhymes and colourful pictures often capture toddler interest and attention.
- Sing songs or say rhymes with your child. This helps your child understand different word sounds – and it’s fun. If you need help remembering the words of songs and rhymes, check out our Baby Karaoke.
- When you play with your toddler, use words to describe what’s happening – for example, ‘Push the ball back to Mummy’ and ‘You got the ball!’
- Give your child choices using words and objects. For example, you could hold up 2 pairs of shoes and say, ‘We’re going outside. Do you want to wear your red boots or your blue shoes?’
- When your child uses ‘made-up’ verbs like ‘goed’, repeat the sentence back with the correct word. For example, ‘Yes, the man went out the door’.
- When your toddler uses simple word combinations like ‘Dog go away’ or ‘Daddy come here’, repeat the words back to your child in full sentences. For example, ‘You want Daddy to make the dog go away?’
Tips to help toddlers understand words
During the toddler years, your child understands more and more of what you say to them. But they don’t understand everything. Here are some ideas to try when your child seems puzzled by something you’ve said:
- Try saying it in different ways. For example, ‘Put the blocks in the box’, or ‘Here’s the box. Put the blocks in it’, or ‘Take the blocks to the box, and put them in’.
- Try to use the same words to describe things. If you repeat the same words, your child will start to understand them. For example, you might always use the word ‘pyjamas’ when you talk about what your toddler wears to bed.
- When you need to give instructions or requests, make them clear and use only 1-2 steps – for example, ‘Lids on the markers. Then put the markers in the tub’.
Speak with a child health professional if your child isn’t using words and gestures like head nods or pointing to communicate.