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Speech Development in Babies and Toddlers

Sabrina H.
SABRINA H.
Speech-Language Pathologist
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Join Speech-Language Pathologist, Sabrina Horvath, for a Q&A about speech and language development in infants, toddlers and young children. Sabrina is here to talk about infant understanding of language, first words, typical speech development and more.

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SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
19 month old vocabulary
KATRINA, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD, 3 YEAR OLD

Hi
thanks for taking questions. Curious how many words /word combos a 19 month old should have?

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Katrina,
There’s a lot of variability in how many words children have; a wide range of abilities can still be considered “normal.” In general, a child should say at least 20-30 words at 19 months of age; some children will have over 100 words, though! It’s also worth noting that some children go through a “spurt” of vocabulary growth between 18 and 24 months; those who looked a little delayed will suddenly start talking your ear off!
Word combinations typically develop between 18-24 months, so many 19-month olds aren’t putting together 2 words at all yet. I wouldn’t be worried if this is the case with your child.
There are two milestones that pediatricians and clinicians are attending to: by 24 months, your child should have an expressive vocabulary of at least 50 words, and your child should be saying many different 2-word combinations. If not, it’s time to seek an evaluation.
Thanks for your question. My primary area of research is in why there is such variability in children’s vocabulary between 18-36 months (and why some children struggle). I always love talking about word learning!

KATRINA

thank you! my lo has started saying 4 word combos “ i want this one” :)
but yes her vocab exploded within last month
hence the regression of sleep but think we are back on track :)

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
19-Month Old Bilingual
LUCINDA, PARENT OF 12 YEAR OLD, 3 YEAR OLD

Great insight so far on bilingualism! My question is what is the approximate age when they will start saying words consistently and when to seek evaluation?

We speak to him in Spanish with minimal English. His grandmother speaks to him in French. So we are speaking to him in three languages. Poor baby the confusion and the hard work he is going through.

At the moment he does say 7-10 words that could be understood and repeats after I say them.

So if you could educate me on what to expect please.

Thank you,
Lucy

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Lucy,
Thanks for your question! Trilingualism is certainly also attainable, but your son certainly does have a lot of work to do!
A good rule of thumb for multilingual children in the first couple years of life is that we expect the same total number of words as the average monolingual language learner, but that the total vocabulary size is divided across the child’s languages. For example, if an 18-month old monolingual child has approximately 20 words total, we would expect a bilingual child to have only about 10 words in each language (for a total of 20), or a trilingual child to have about 7 words in each language.
At 19 months of age, a total vocabulary size of 7-10 words is small, even for a multilingual child. Your child may blossom in the next couple of months, but be sure to keep an eye on his total vocabulary size. As I mentioned to a previous poster, pediatricians and clinicians are on the lookout for a minimum of 50 words total at 24 months of age, and multiple 2-word combinations at 24 months of age. If your child looks like he isn’t going to meet those two milestones, it’s time to seek an evaluation.
Thanks for your question, and best of luck in raising your trilingual child!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Speaking outside of the home
JENNIFER

Hi! My daughter, who turns 2 next week, is a Chatty Cathy at home. As far as I know, she is developmentally fine, with a large vocabulary and speaking in either one- or two-word sentences. However, this child basically does not speak in public. Even to people she knows (other than family and her nanny). For example, she started a 2s program 4 weeks ago (2x/wk), and has been talking about who she sees and what she does; however, the head teacher told my nanny yesterday that my daughter has not said one word in class in all of that time. I don't know if this is a lack of confidence (she can feel shy around others) or something else. So I have two questions: 1) What do you think is the root problem here, if any, and 2) what can I do to encourage her to chit chat with others? Thank you!

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Jennifer,
It is not uncommon for shy children to withdraw in social situations, and not speaking is one way that they try to withdraw. Many children that come into our research lab don’t speak for the first several minutes because they are unsure about a new environment, but by the end of their appointment they are “Chatty Cathys” and unwilling to leave! Depending on how severe your daughter’s shyness is, you may ultimately want to seek the advice of a psychologist; however, reticence to speak is not uncommon for shy children at her age.
To help your daughter come out of her shell, I would recommend that you step back from “talking” and focus more on “communicating”. She sounds shy enough that communication acts like pointing to indicate a preference may be a big enough first step for her (e.g., indicating which snack she wants at snack time). Also encourage waving hello and goodbye, which demands communication but no words.
As your daughter is more comfortable with some communication in public settings, you can begin to facilitate conversations by “interpreting” her communication to others. I would initially limit her to just answering yes/no questions from you, which you then “communicate” to others. For example: a friend is holding a ball that your daughter wants to play with. You ask your daughter, “Should we ask to play with the ball?” When your daughter nods, you say to your daughter’s friend, “[Daughter] says, ‘May I play with the ball?’” After, you ask your daughter, “What do we say now? Should we say thank you?” Then, again on behalf of your daughter, “[Daughter] says ‘thank you!’”
Here, you are encouraging and facilitating communication in small steps. Shy children tend to withdraw more if they are pushed too hard, but can overcome their shyness with support.
Best of luck!

JENNIFER

Thank you! It's very odd b/c she always wants to sit in the lap of a teacher (even if she just met her that day) but won't speak.

One follow-up question: At what point do you think I should have my daughter evaluated for selective mutism?

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Jennifer,
If you are concerned that this more than typical shyness, then I would recommend speaking to a psychologist without delay. Selective mutism is often the result of severe social anxiety – speech and language looks like the problem, but social phobia is the root cause. Speech-language pathologists (like me) may be asked to evaluate to ensure that there are no clear motor/structural problems, and they may be called upon to assist in treatment, but often a psychologist makes the final diagnosis. Whether or not a clinical diagnosis should be made, and what that diagnosis should be, falls in their scope of practice more often.
Here’s some additional information on Selective Mutism from the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association: http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/SelectiveMutism/ .
I hope this helps!

JENNIFER

Thank you! I don't believe it's more than typical shyness, but I just want to be prepared just in case.

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Bilingual 22 month old
MARIA, PARENT OF 3 YEAR OLD

Hi Sabrina,
My daughter is finally repeating words in both languages and she does alot of code switching, which I have read is a sign of normal development. My question is regarding sentence formation. Although she will say many single words, she hasn't yet been able to put a sentence together. Not even something simple like "give me", she will just say "give". Aside from modeling correct speech, what else can I do to promote this next step?
Thanks! -Maria

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Maria,
I’m glad to hear that your daughter is repeating words in both languages and building up her vocabulary. Remember, though, that your daughter has the task of building up vocabulary in two languages simultaneously. She is also tasked with figuring out how sentence structure works in two languages, rather than just one. Acquiring two languages is a much harder task, although certainly doable!
Before she can build short sentences, your daughter must have built up a large enough vocabulary in each of her two languages in order to combine words; she also needs to have figured out the rules of sentence structure for each language separately. Monolingual children are just starting to combine two words together at 22-months. Bilingual children, like your daughter, have more work to do and typically need a little extra time before they, too, start combining words.
In the meantime, modeling is absolutely the best technique to promote the next step. In order to be most effective with modeling language, make sure you are “expanding” on what she is trying to say and “modeling” the correct sentence. For example, if your daughter points for her cup and says, “give”, you model, “Give me the cup!” If your daughter points to a picture of a dog in a book and says “perro”, you say “Es un perro!” Stick to the language she has used, and use short, complete sentences. You’ve then replaced her partial production of language with a full, correct model. She’ll be combining words before long!
Thanks for your question!

MARIA

Sabrina,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful answer! You have put my mind at ease and given me a specific task to work on. I appreciate it!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
"S" as "th"
KACI, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD

Hi Sabrina! My 2.5 year old is very chatty with a great vocabulary. However, she mostly says "s" with a lisp making a "th" sound instead. We have practiced and she has the ability to make an "s" sound the right way, but just in her normal (rapid) speech it comes out as "th." Is this something I should act on at her age or will it possibly go away on its own? Any tips/tricks to get her to pronounce the "s" properly? Thanks!

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Kaci,
Children actually learn to refine and master their sound productions over the course of many years, and in some cases don’t achieve full mastery until they are 8 years old. Some sounds are easier than others (and are mastered earlier in development), but “s” is definitely a tricky one for children!
It is normal for a 2.5 year old to not say the “s” sound as an adult would. You’ve mentioned two important pieces of information. First, although she is not producing the sound correctly in her normal speech, your daughter can make the “s” sound the right way. In clinical terms, she is “stimulable” for the “s” sound, which is a good sign. Second, it seems that she (usually) tries to say an “s” sound when it appears in the word, rather than deleting it. “Marking” the sound by attempting it, rather than deleting it is more advanced developmentally. (As a side note, she may still delete the “s” in complex words, like “strike”, which is ok, too, for her age. However, “th-top!” for “stop”! is more advanced than just “top!”)
Although I can understand the desire to do something, my recommendation is to wait and allow your daughter to refine the production in her own time. Although some children have mastered the “s” by 2.5, many children have not. She is not delayed for not having mastered it yet, nor would I treat her clinically since she is only 2.5 years old. I suspect that you will see improvement in her production of the sound over the next 6-8 months or so.
For some additional information, you can read about Speech Sound Disorders from the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA): http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/SpeechSoundDisorders/
And check out this great chart, showing when children typically master their sounds: http://www.talkingchild.com/speechchart.html . Note here how girls don’t typically begin to master “s” until after 3!
Thanks for your question!

KACI

Thank you SO much -- that's all so helpful!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Formation of certain letters / sounds
HEATHER, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD, 2 YEAR OLD

My 2.5 year old is at what I think it is an average language development stage, in terms of number of words, comprehension, and putting words and ideas together to form sentences.
Lately he has started pronouncing certain sounds / letters by sticking his tongue out of his mouth. Sounds such as double letters ("l', and "t" ) (words like "better" and "Mollie") and also when he says a single "l" sound (color), I know "l's" can be one of the later letters, but the sudden change in his form has me curious. It's hard to describe via writing, but as you or I would pronounce those sounds, our tongue hits the back of our front teeth. He allows his entire tongue to leave his mouth to pronounce the word. Is this something I should consider a speech consult for so as not to have this continue as a permanent thing, or am I just being paranoid?
Thank you!

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Heather,
Thanks for your question! Describing speech sounds can be tricky in writing, but you did a great job.
You are absolutely right that sounds take time to develop in children, and you are also absolutely right in thinking that “l” is a later sound to develop. Children do some strange things when they are still learning how to make sounds, and sticking their tongues out can be one of them. However, it less usual that children who had more mature forms would revert to less mature patterns. Here, your son has gone from keeping his tongue behind his teeth for “color” and “Mollie” to sticking his tongue out. Even if his pronunciation of the “l” sound wasn’t perfect, his attempts were closer to the correct form when he kept his tongue behind his teeth, where it is supposed to be for the “l” sound.
Although this may just be a phase of development, I am a little concerned that this appears to be a new behavior. For that reason specifically, I would recommend that you talk to your pediatrician and/or get a speech consult. In particular, I would want someone to look over his oral motor structures and oral motor control, just to make sure that this new development isn’t because of underlying structural problems. This may well be a phase, but here I think a consult is warranted.
Best of luck!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Babbling
WHITNEY, PARENT OF 2 YEAR OLD

I am wondering about speech language development for infants- I have an 8 month old baby girl and am just curious what to look for or expect language-wise at this time. She makes lots of sounds but does not make any consanent sounds (ba ba, ma ma, etc). When does this typically start? She also does not mimic any sounds that I make. Any reason to be concerned or am I being a paranoid first time mom?? Thank you!!

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Whitney,
Each child develops differently, and these differences are probably most pronounced in the first year of life. First-time parents often have difficulty figuring out what is normal versus not. You aren’t being paranoid at all; you are just involved and interested in your child’s wellbeing!
Regarding your question, most children do have some consonant sounds by 8 months of age (usually “p”, “b” and/or “m”), although they may not be combining consonants and vowels together yet (like “ba ba”). Can your daughter make these sounds alone, even if she isn’t combining them? Also, is your daughter making a few different vowel sounds, like “eee” and “aaa” and “ooooh”? Is she smiling at you when you smile at her, and is she interested in you? Any and all of these would be good signs for your daughter’s development.
When parents are concerned about babbling, the first thing I consider is the child’s hearing. If your daughter has ever failed a hearing test, or if you have any reason to suspect that she has a hearing loss, then you should investigate this immediately. A child can’t learn language that she doesn’t hear!
Also note that children who have frequent ear infections can be a little delayed with their speech and language development. Having fluid in their ears impacts both how much language they hear and what the language sounds like.
For more information, here are some resources from the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association:
http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/01/
http://www.asha.org/public/Early-Detection-of-Speech-Language-and-Hearing-Disorders/
If your daughter does not make any progress in the next couple of months, or if there are other skills listed on these websites that you think your daughter lacks, you may want to have an in-depth conversation with your pediatrician. In the meantime, keep an eye on her sound development, and remember that every child’s development is different!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Bilingual babies
CATERINE, PARENT OF 2 YEAR OLD

What's the best method to teach your kids to be bilingual and not have confusions later on?
I've been speaking to my 1 year old Spanish since he was born and my husband speaks to him in English when he's around. I speak to my husband in English (since he doesn't know Spanish) when the baby is around. Will this confuse my son? He gets a lot of things I tell him in Spanish and what my husband tells him in English. He seems to be picking both languages. But wanted to know how to go about teaching him his ABC, colors, numbers?

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Caterine,
One of the myths of raising a bilingual child is that your child will become confused if you are not careful or “go about” bilingualism in the wrong way. This is untrue! Your child is capable of learning both languages, and you are not confusing your child by exposing him to both English and Spanish!
It is true that children learning two languages may take just a little longer to reach some milestones, but this is just because they have more to learn. Children may also temporarily mix up or combine both languages as they are learning, but this is also very normal. Your child is not confused, disadvantaged, or struggling to learn languages. He will figure it all out with time!
I think the arrangement you have described is a great way to ensure that your son is bilingual. It can be hard to give children enough exposure to a second language (here, Spanish), when they hear so much English day-to-day. However, it sounds like your son is learning both languages, and that you have a successful environment in place for him. My recommendation is simply to continue what is already successful. Continue to speak to him in Spanish, and whenever you teach him his letters and numbers do so in Spanish. He will learn the English elsewhere, either from his father or from school. There are no special dos and don’ts for teaching letters and numbers just because he is bilingual. He can, and will, learn both!
Best of luck, and great job so far!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
is this normal??
MELISSA, PARENT OF 3 YEAR OLD

Hello! My almost 21 month old daughter is finally saying many words. However, a lot of her words sound the same (bubbles, bottle, dada, doggy) Is that normal. Also, she still doesn't have endings to her words (ex. bub for bubble, mmmm for moo).

Thank you

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Melissa,
Children start to add lots of new words to their vocabulary after 18 months of age, so I’m glad to hear that your daughter is expanding her vocabulary! However, children are also still learning to produce and combine the sounds of their language, and this sound challenge actually persists even into kindergarten. Some sounds are naturally harder to produce (e.g., “b” and “m” are much easier than “r” or “l”). It is also harder to produce consonants that are combined together (e.g., “blah” is much harder than “ball”, even though they have the same sounds in them). Also, it is harder to produce longer words than shorter words (e.g., “moo” is much easier than “cock-a-doodle-doo”).
At 18-months of age, your daughter does not yet have all of the sounds of her language, and she does not yet have the capacity to produce long or complex words. When she comes across a difficult word, she adapts it. She will shorten it (e.g., “buh” for “bubble”), she will remove syllables (e.g., “ef” for “elephant”), and she will delete hard sounds (e.g. “dah-ee” for “doggie”). All children do this, and this is completely normal!
The result, as you have identified, is that many of her adapted words end up sounding the same (e.g., “buh” for bottle, bubbles, baby). As her sound system develops, she will naturally be able to handle more complex words and sounds, and the words will start to sound different to your ears. In the meantime, she is going through a completely normal part of language development, and she is doing exactly what I would expect her to at 21 months!
Thanks for your question!

MELISSA

Wow, thank you very much for all the information. This was very helpful!!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Understanding Words
MEREDITH, PARENT OF 3 YEAR OLD, 12 MONTH OLD

Hello! My almost-18 month has an abundance of words, and most of the time I can decipher what she means. For the times that she's pointing to something and saying a a word I can't quite understand or pick up on, what is the best approach to making it easy for her so that she doesn't get too frustrated that I am not quite understanding what she means? Thanks!

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Meredith,
Unfortunately, communication breakdowns are a natural part of the language development process. Your daughter’s desire to communicate likely outstrips her abilities at this point, and breakdowns are the unfortunate consequence.
I am thrilled to hear that she has lots of words, and that she is supplementing what she can’t say with other communication (i.e., pointing). This is wonderful! She is already using great communication strategies to interact with you, and her strengths here go a long way into helping communication flow.
However, your daughter is still just 18-months old: her vocabulary is still limited, her ability to say complex words is limited (meaning that many words sound the same), and her patience is limited! Don’t be too hard on yourself when breakdowns happen, because they will.
I recommend two strategies to combating this frustration problem:
1) Use yes/no questions regularly when communication breaks down. Your daughter is already working hard to communicate a complex idea with her still-developing system. If she becomes frustrated, it becomes even harder. By asking yes/no questions, you are reducing demands on her, which will help her frustration level.
2) “Expand” on her language regularly. For example, when your daughter points and says “milk!” (or just points to the milk), you “expand” by offering a simple sentence that she could have said (here, “I want milk!”). Alternatively, your daughter points at a truck going by; you say “It’s a truck!” or “I see a truck!” What you are doing here is modeling the next step of language development. In a sense, you are replacing her imperfect attempt with the correct form. This strategy will help support her transition into the next stage of language development, and hopefully reduce the frequency with which communication breaks down.
Thanks!