How can I enrich my toddler's vocabulary?

Q: My toddler is 16 months old and has no significant words in her vocabulary. How can I help her?

A: The best thing to do is model appropriate speech by chatting with your child as much as possible -- in real language, but not baby talk. Narrate everything you do throughout the day, from making lunch to laundry to grocery shopping. You may start to feel a little crazy (or get some odd looks at the supermarket), but trust us, it will pay off. As you talk, encourage your daughter to mimic you, but don't mimic her. For example, if she says "baba" instead of "bottle," use the correct word when you speak. Say something like "I'm going to the refrigerator to get you a bottle of water."

To eliminate any contributing factors, you might want to ask the pediatrician about having your child's hearing checked. Although most babies' hearing is screened at birth, that's not a full audiological test. And just because your daughter turns her head in response to a sudden, loud noise doesn't mean she can hear language properly, since the crashing of broken glass is heard very differently compared to distinct syllable and letter sounds. If it turns out that your daughter is hearing impaired, don't worry. In many cases the problem is associated with fluid buildup behind her eardrum (usually from chronic ear infections). Kids with more serious issues can be treated with a tiny hearing aid to amplify sound or even cochlear implants (devices that translate sound waves into signals for the brain). But regardless of the root of the problem or method of treatment, when hearing loss is caught at this age, early intervention programs are extremely successful in helping children develop typical language and learning skills.

You also want to be sure your daughter is relating well to you, that she makes eye contact and is engaged when you play with her. If all is otherwise well, then monitor your daughter for a few months. If her speech is not getting better by 18 months, then you should have her language skills evaluated. And remember, if it turns out that your daughter's speech is delayed, it doesn't mean she will always have speech issues. The majority of speech issues are resolved by the time the child is school age.

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