Luke Nelson, 2, of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, is a great communicator. He makes faces and uses a wide variety of gestures. He points to what he wants. He shakes his head for yes and no. He follows commands (and sometimes refuses with a stamp of his foot), demonstrating that he understands what's said to him. He just doesn't say much back.
And that's not uncommon. Late language development is the most common delay, affecting 1 in 10 children. That's because communicating is so complicated, says Pamela High, MD, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Hasbro Children's Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island. It requires understanding as well as speaking, and these skills develop differently. Receptive language (understanding) needs to happen first and usually comes before expressive language (speaking) by half a year. So if, for instance, your toddler is able to point to his nose when you ask him to, that's a sign that his skills are developing, even if he's not talking.
If your child is past his second birthday and still has few words, think about whether you're giving him the chance to speak. Luke's mother, Karen, realized that she and the rest of the family were talking for him. "I'd guess, out loud, what he wanted, and when I got it right, he'd nod and do his little happy dance," she says. "Now I make it a point to say, 'Tell me what you want' and wait for him to respond." This approach takes longer. It was faster to guess what Luke wanted to drink, for example, than to wait for him to say "juice" or "milk." But the payoff of waiting is that Luke is gaining vocabulary.
Personality plays a role in talking too. Barry Zuckerman, MD, professor and chair of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, explains that some babies are naturally quiet. You can help draw them out by singing songs, telling nursery rhymes, mimicking their sounds, and encouraging them to mimic you. Also, "there's nothing like sharing books," Dr. Zuckerman says. "Point and name things in the pictures, and ask your child to point and name."