It's one of the biggest questions of your baby's first year: Will she say "Mama" or "Dada"? You'll probably hear that special first word by the time she turns 1—and then there's no stopping your little chatterbox. Around 15 months, she'll start using simple consonant sounds to form words such as "up," "more," and "baby." At 18 months, her vocabulary explodes and she should begin picking up several new words a day.
Although you can't rush your child's natural development, you can help boost her language skills. "The best thing you can do is talk to your 1-year-old continuously throughout the day," says Michelle Macias, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "You may feel silly saying, 'Now I'm putting the potatoes into the pot,' but this constant exposure to language will help her learn." Check out these simple ways to get the most out of your toddler talks.
When it comes to a 1-year-old's vocabulary, they understand a lot more words than they can actually say. "For 1-year-olds, using gestures as nonverbal communication is an important skill you can encourage," says Dr. Macias.
When your toddler waves at you, chime in with "Bye-bye!" or when he points at something, ask, "Do you want the cup?" You can also play games with gestures, like pat-a-cake, or make motions with your hands when you sing "The Wheels on the Bus" to help him connect the words with the actions.
Although it's okay if your 1-year-old calls his bottle "ba ba," you and your spouse should use the proper words to make sure that you're not always talking down to your toddler. "Parents need to stay one step ahead of their child's stage," says Stuart Teplin, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Concord, North Carolina. By using real words instead of baby talk, you're helping him to expand his vocabulary.
Parents often make the mistake of rushing through the pages of a book because they're tired and trying to get their child to bed. Instead, read to her throughout the day when you're not rushed. Talk about what you're seeing in the pictures. Say, "Look at that little boy. Does he look happy or sad?" Even asking her what sounds the animals in the pictures make gets her practicing speech skills.
Organize activities with kids your child's age. Even if a group of 1-year-olds isn't very chatty, being around peers gives them the chance to listen, interact, and test-drive their vocabulary in a social setting. Help out by saying, "Wow, she's giving you the bear. Say, 'Thank you!'"
Around 18 months, toddlers start using two-word combos to communicate. "Usually, they'll put together an action plus an object, like 'drink juice,' or 'read book,'" says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of speech pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Maryland. Teach her to string words together by adding one or two: If she says, "Ball," you say, "Big ball" or "Throw your ball."
When he tries to say something, acknowledge his attempt in a positive way. "Don't correct his speech," says Paul. "Respond to the content of his message, rather than to how perfectly he says it." For example, if he notices your husband leaving and says, "Daddy bye-bye," jump in with "Yes, Daddy's going to the store."
If she's curious about something, she'll want to know the words that go with it. Pay attention to what's catching her interest, and talk about what she's seeing: "That's a cute white cat by the tree."
"Toddlers are starting to add inflection to their voice to ask questions like, 'Out?'" says Dr.Teplin. They're also learning that you talk softly when you're indoors and you can be louder outside. Play with funny voices—such as a gruff bear voice or a squeaky mouse one —so your child can copy you and practice different sounds and pitches.
Toddlers love music, and singing is a great way to build language. Teach her plenty of simple songs, especially ones that rhyme ("One, Two, Buckle My Shoe") or make lots of sounds ("Old MacDonald"). But don't fall into the trap of plopping her down in front of the TV because you think she'll learn that way. Although educational shows can be helpful, right now it's better for her to have one-on-one time with you. "Toddlers aren't wired to learn from TV," says Dr. Macias. "What they really listen to and respond to is real human voices and interaction."
Originally published in Parents magazine. Updated 2018.