Few childhood milestones are as thrilling as your baby's first word -- an event lovingly recorded in baby books and immortalized in family lore. But a toddler's acquisition of language can also be a source of anxiety. "So many parents worry about whether their child's verbal development is normal," says Leslie Rescorla, Ph.D., director of the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania. "Most of the time, happily, their fears are baseless."
When it comes to speech acquisition, there is a wide range of "normal," and the vast majority of children -- even relatively silent types -- fall comfortably within that range. While many 12-month-olds can say a few single words ("mama," "dada," "up," and "more" are among the most common, according to Marilyn Agin, M.D., coauthor of The Late Talker), many others don't start speaking until they're 15 to 18 months old. Most, Dr. Rescorla says, utter their first words between 13 and 18 months.
By the time toddlers reach their second birthday, about 70 percent of them have mastered 50 to 250 words -- mostly nouns, verbs, and adjectives -- which they can string together in simple, two- or three-syllable sentences ("Want milk," "Doggie play"). A rare few are verbally adept enough to manage such complex statements as "When Daddy gets home, can I play ball?".
That said, a sizable minority of children -- some 10 to 12 percent -- lag behind over the course of this year. Your child is considered a late talker if, by age 2, he says fewer than 50 words or does not use any two-word combinations. Being a late talker is no cause for alarm -- kids typically catch up by age 5 -- but you should mention it to your pediatrician, Dr. Rescorla advises.
More worrisome is a lag in "receptive" language, or what your child comprehends. "Most 1-year-olds can follow simple instructions -- 'Find your shoe,' for example," Dr. Rescorla says. "If your 18-month-old doesn't seem to understand much, you should consult your doctor."
Don't be concerned if your toddler's verbalizations are unintelligible to everyone but you. At 18 months, Dr. Agin estimates, only 25 percent of what your child says can be understood by an outsider (as opposed to the 95 percent that you grasp). "Articulation ability varies a great deal," Dr. Rescorla adds. "Don't worry until your child is 3."
Helping Language Blossom
Parents play a key role in their child's verbal progress. "Research has shown that there are two critical components to language development: the number of words kids hear and the amount of encouragement they receive," says Steve Berman, M.D., a language-development expert and past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "The more you talk with and encourage your child, the stronger her vocabulary will be." Here are some ways to get the conversation rolling.
- Talk it up. "Everything your child does, from getting dressed to going to bed, is an opportunity to use words," says Dawn Gagliardi, a speech-language pathologist in Peekskill, New York. A running narration, accompanied by gestures -- "Here's your shirt; over your head" -- builds vocabulary and shows that every object has a name.
- Say it with a song. Since kids can mimic motions before speech, it's helpful to sing songs and play games that involve hand movements, such as "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," "The Wheels on the Bus," and "Pat-a-Cake." Children also remember words more easily when they're set to music, says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
- Add just one more. "When your toddler spontaneously says something, elaborate on it with one additional word," Dr. Rescorla suggests. For instance, if he says "ball," say "red ball" or "big ball" -- a strategy that not only enlarges his vocabulary but also teaches word combinations.
- Play the name game. "Your child needs to absorb the idea that everything has a name and that she can communicate by using those names," Dr. Berman says. Illustrated books are perfect for pointing and naming, but even a cereal box offers opportunities. From 12 to 15 months, stick to simple nouns. At 15 to 19 months, add action verbs, like "run," "eat," and "sit," or adjectives such as "purple," "small," and "cold."
- Don't jump the gun. Allow your child to express his need before you answer it. If he is usually thirsty when he wakes from his nap, don't automatically get him a drink. Instead, let him try to ask for it, then reward his attempt to communicate by saying, "You're thirsty! Let's get you some juice."
- Practice, practice, practice. Give your child every possible opportunity to exercise her verbal skills, especially with peers. "When toddlers see other toddlers talking, they're encouraged to do it too," Gagliardi says. Minimize the use of pacifiers, bottles, and spillproof cups; prolonged sucking, some speech pathologists believe, can produce a "lazy tongue" and inhibit a child's ability to articulate th and st sounds.
- Wait it out. "It can take a while for toddlers to find the words they want, and this is often frustrating for parents," Gagliardi says. But refrain from jumping in and completing your child's sentences. By giving him a chance to use his budding vocabulary, you'll affirm your faith in his competence. And that's the best encouragement of all.