Your Baby's Language Development From 16 to 18 Months

Once toddlers figure out that everything has a name, they want to label their world. Here's how many words a 16-month-old should say and more about toddler language development.

Wondering how many words your 16-month-old should be able to say? While every child is different, of course, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that by 18 months old, toddlers should be well on their way to saying three other words besides "mama" or "dada."

"By 16 to 18 months, most kids have a vocabulary of 10 to 15 words, pediatrician Sara DuMond, M.D., F.A.A.P., explains. In general, starting around 16 months of age, your toddler should be attempting a few words and understanding simple phrases and instructions as well. (Listening is another story!)

Here's more about what to expect in language development from 16 to 18 months of age.

How Many Words Should a 16-Month-Old Say?

By 16 months old, it's difficult to put an exact number on how many words your child should be saying, but it should be between one and three additional words besides just "mama" or "dada."

The CDC explains that an 18-month-old should be attempting to say more than three words, but by 15 months old, your child should only be expected to try to say one or two words other than "mama" or "dada."

The CDC also makes a point that your toddler doesn't have to say those words perfectly, but should be at least attempting to speak a few words. And as with all child development, there's a wide spectrum of what is considered normal in a toddler's language development, says Greg Sonnen, M.D., a pediatrician at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

"Some toddlers may say only two words, while others speak a dozen or more by 16 months," he adds. "Their articulation skills aren't great, though, and many times a word means something only to their parents."

16-Month-Old Receptive Language

Equally as important as the words your child is saying or trying to say is their understanding of the words you say.

Between 15 and 18 months old, the CDC explains that toddlers should be able to follow simple instructions and directions. For example, if you ask your child to bring you a toy, they should be able to fetch a toy. Or, if you ask them to get ready to go, they should be able to run to the door.

By 16 months, your child will be able to understand a lot of what people around them are saying. This ability to grasp spoken language—a skill experts dub "receptive language"—is the first crucial step towards developing the gift of gab.

However, your baby's receptive language skills actually began as early as listening to the sounds of adult voices in the womb. But as your child grows and especially into the second year of life, they will begin perfecting their receptive language, storing up vocabulary, and absorbing the many slippery rules of grammar.

First Words for a 16-Month-Old Toddler

So what will those first words from your 16-month-old be? Most likely, the first words your toddler will learn are labels for the people, animals, or other things in their world. For example, "ba" for "ball" or "da" for dog.

Your toddler will continue to learn single words or short phrases, adding about one or two new ones each month. Then, around 18 months, (although it may happen sooner or later too!) your toddler will experience what experts call a "language explosion" and learn as many as 10 new words a day.

Once your child has mastered a few words, they'll begin to try to communicate their thoughts more out loud. They will also imitate what the adults around them are saying.

For instance, your toddler may yell, "Cat!" when the cat starts digging in your flowerpot because they have heard you do the same.

Your Toddler's Growing Vocabulary

Eventually, your toddler will figure out how to string an ever-growing vocabulary into short sentences, says Stephanie Leeds, Ph.D., former director of education and child studies at Cazenovia College, in upstate New York.

Your child won't bother with inessential words like prepositions or articles. Those will come later. For now, the toddler who catches the family cat digging in the flowerpot might say, "Bad cat!"

These early sentences are what experts call "telegraphic speech," and they usually consist of two words. Despite their brevity, these sentences represent a new level of communication between your child and others. For instance, your toddler may run to the window and call out, "Mama home!" when they hear mom's car in the driveway or yell, "Go swing!" when they see the playground.

Given the egocentric nature of most toddlers, early sentences are often commands. Your child may yell, "More milk!" or "Find Teddy!" while they test their newfound abilities to make their every need known.

Some words might not be accurate at first: Your child might call a lion or zebra "doggie" because they all have four legs, fur, and a tail, for instance. Typically, however, the word order toddlers use will be correct.

For instance, if your child says, "See bus," that probably means they are excited about having seen a bus. But if your toddler calls, "Bus, see," it most likely means they want you to come see the bus, too.

Ways to Help Your 16-Month-Old's Language Development

If you want to help your 16-month-old boost their language development, there are a few things you can do.

Talk to your child

Not surprisingly, research demonstrates that children whose parents talk to them from infancy, using a variety of words and responding positively to their efforts to speak, are likely to develop the best language skills.

So keep up that chatter around the house and when running errands with your child. Even if they're not responding yet, the words you speak are laying the foundation for language in their brain.

Don't compare your child's development

It is normal for parents to worry about their child's language development. "After all, we all know someone who knew somebody who had a kid who recited Shakespeare at 12 months," says Dr. Sonnen.

But rest assured: Even if your toddler seems slower to speak than others, as long as they listen to conversations around them, seem to understand most of what is said, and communicate through facial expressions and body language, they are probably just preparing for conversation at their own pace.

"Most kids even out in language skills by preschool," Dr. Sonnen says.

Encourage make-believe play

"Somewhere between 16 and 18 months, toddlers shift from copying others to symbolic play," says Leeds. "This means they have the imagination and cognitive abilities to pretend an object stands for something else."

Your child may bark like a dog while crawling around your feet, or use dolls to imitate people. They might put a bowl on their head and insist it's a new hat, or use a banana as a phone. And while this pretend play might seem silly, it's actually a cornerstone for future learning.

"Reading and writing are all about symbolic representation," Leeds notes. "So this ability to imagine is an essential developmental step."

Keep their well-child check-ups

Your child will have a well-child check-up scheduled when they are about 18 months old, so be sure to keep the appointment and talk to your child's pediatrician or care provider about any concerns you may have.

Dr. DuMond says that pediatricians will ask parents how many words their child is saying at the check-up, so it can be helpful to do a quick inventory before the appointment. Count the words your child can say or says on a regular basis.

"And it doesn't matter if only you can understand the words," Dr. DuMond adds. "We still count them, and so should you!"

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  1. The Brain-Changing Power of Conversation. Harvard Graduate School of Education. 2018.

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