Your Toddler Isn't Talking, When Should You Worry?

All the other toddlers are chatting away, but your little one's lips are sealed. If your toddler is a late talker, when should you worry?


The famous physicist Albert Einstein didn’t start talking until he was three. But when it’s your toddler who still doesn’t say a word – when his playmates seem to have rapidly growing vocabularies – it’s hard not to be concerned.

On average, babies speak their first words between 11 and 14 months, and those early words may not be very clear. Often only the parents recognize that what sounds to everyone else like “baba” is really the baby’s best attempt at big brother Sebastian’s name. Girls tend to be ahead of boys in this, and first or only children tend to speak sooner than babies with older brothers.

By 18 months, the average toddler can say between 30 and 50 words and is starting to put them together into short two-word sentences such as “Up, Mama!”

But what if your child is approaching 18 months and still doesn’t say any words, or has barely mastered Mama and Dada? About 25% of children fall into this category, so you are certainly not alone. If you are concerned, your first step should be to discuss this with your doctor. Some children don’t begin speaking because they have hearing problems (sometimes the result of repeated ear infections, so if that’s part of your child’s medical history, that’s an extra reason to get his hearing checked out).

If physical problems are ruled out, you might want to introduce more activities with your child to encourage speech. If he makes a sound, repeat that sound back to him. Read baby books to him, especially the ones with a simple image on each page that you can point to and name: “Here’s the dog. This is a cat.” If she is used to pointing to what she wants, encourage her to tell you instead: “You want something on the shelf? Can you say what it is?”

Research (such as that done by Prof. Arlene Young at the University of Guelph) suggests that as long as children understand what is said to them, they are not likely to have ongoing problems. So if your late talker runs to pick up the ball when you ask her to and waves bye-bye when people say good-bye to her, she’s probably going to be speaking soon. On the other hand, children who don’t seem to understand spoken words may need more help.

Usually, experts recommend asking your doctor for a referral to a speech-language therapist if your child is still not talking at age two and a half, especially if she seems very frustrated by her inability to communicate, if her attempts to speak are not at all recognizable (even to you as her parents) or if, as mentioned above, she doesn’t seem to understand what you say.

Most of the time, late talkers quickly catch up to their peers, and you may soon find yourself like most parents of preschoolers: answering a million questions from your very-verbal child (why do trees have leaves? Why does the doggy have fur? Why can’t I eat dirt?) and perhaps wondering why you were so darn eager to have your toddler speak. 

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