Speech Development in Toddlers

Three noted speech experts answer your questions about how toddlers development speech skills.

Q: How many words should my 2-year-old be able to say?

A: "Around their second birthday, many children begin to acquire words at breakneck speed, a phenomenon experts call the naming explosion. Most 2-year-olds can say about 100 words," says Andrew N. Meltzoff, Ph.D., coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn (William Morrow, 1999). "By the time your toddler is 2 1/2, she'll probably know close to 300." But not all children follow this pattern, so don't panic if your child isn't talking nonstop by 2 1/2. "However, if by the time your toddler is almost 3, she says fewer than 25 words and can't combine them in a simple 2-word sentence, consult your pediatrician," Dr. Meltzoff recommends.

Q: I am concerned that my toddler isn't talking enough. What should I expect when the pediatrician checks her?

A: First, your doctor will review your child's medical history and ask whether she achieved her mental, physical, and social milestones on time. Doing this will help rule out any developmental problems.

Because a common cause of speech delays is lingering fluid from a middle-ear infection, your doctor should also check your child's ears. "Fluid buildup prevents children from hearing clearly, so they can't mimic the speech around them," Dr. Meltzoff says. If this is the case, your doctor will likely prescribe a course of antibiotics or recommend ear tubes. He'll also check your child's motor skills, as some children have trouble coordinating the muscles in the mouth and throat, which can lead to speech problems.

Depending on his findings, he may advise speech therapy or a visit to an audiologist, who specializes in hearing problems. "But even if your child does need therapy, she'll probably catch up fairly quickly, as very young children tend to respond well to treatment," says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., coauthor of How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life (Dutton, 1999). "Some kids just get off to a slower start than others."

Q: My 2-year-old stutters when she talks. Does she need speech therapy?

A: Probably not. Children between 2 and 3 often repeat sounds or hesitate between syllables. "Most toddler stuttering disappears in a few months," Dr. Golinkoff says. However, if your child stutters for more than three months, consult your pediatrician. "In the meantime, slow your own speech down so that your child can hear each syllable, and be patient when she replies," Dr. Golinkoff advises. "A calm, relaxed atmosphere can help a tentative talker speak more clearly."

Q: My neighbor's 2-year-old can string together five- to seven-word sentences. My own toddler says only two words at a time. Is he lagging behind?

A: No. Both children are within the normal range. "There's wide variability in speech development at this age," Dr. Meltzoff says. "Some children simply acquire words more gradually." As long as your child's vocabulary is in the 100-word range, you needn't worry.

Q: When my 2-year-old talks to me, I can't understand what he says. Is this normal?

A: Yes—toddlers often muddle their pronunciation. "Speaking clearly is difficult for a young child. There are nearly 100 different muscles in the vocal tract that need to be coordinated," says Richard N. Aslin, Ph.D., a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. Some children have a harder time than others. "Listen carefully to your child's speech. If the sounds he makes are similar to real words and sentences—saying 'Whareesha' instead of 'What is that,' for example—he's probably just a little verbally clumsy. Exercises like blowing soap bubbles will help his coordination." However, if the sounds don't resemble the names of the objects or concepts, talk to your pediatrician.

Q: My 2-year-old son uses short phrases like "Want food" rather than complete sentences. Why is he doing this?

A: Two-year-olds' sentences are very different from those of older kids and adults. "When a 2-year-old says 'I see truck' rather than 'I can see the truck,' he's using what's known as telegraphic speech, which means he's using only the parts he needs to get his point across," Dr. Meltzoff says. To encourage your child to speak in full sentences, repeat what he says in correct sentence form. By age 3, most children stop using telegraphic speech.

Q: Is it okay to use baby talk with my 2-year-old?

A: Though talking in complete sentences is a good idea, it's fine to speak in the exaggerated speech that parents naturally adopt when addressing their children. In fact, it may actually help your child learn to speak better, according to Dr. Meltzoff's research. "This speech—called parentese—has very clear and elongated vowel sounds, so it's a wonderful tutorial for young children," he explains. And because the sentences are generally short, simple, and repetitive, they're easy for toddlers to mimic.

Q: I'm relocating to a state whose residents speak with a very heavy accent. I'm afraid that my toddler won't understand the people around her. Will this hamper her speech development?

A: No. "Most children adapt very readily to accent changes and have very little trouble understanding the speech around them," Dr. Golinkoff says. On the rare occasion when your daughter is having trouble understanding, act as her interpreter by repeating what has just been said.

Q: Sometimes when I'm busy, I let my 26-month-old watch videos. Can this help her language development?

A: It probably won't hurt, but TV and videos are poor substitutes for a parent's involvement. "Watching TV is a passive activity," Dr. Meltzoff says. "Activities such as speaking to your child, reading to her, and labeling objects are better ways to encourage language development."

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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