7 Strategies to Turn Grunts into Words

August 25, 2023

Having a toddler who grunts or whines instead of speaking can be extremely frustrating not just for you as the parent, but also for your toddler! Trust me, I get it! The good news is that grunting and whining are, in fact, a form of communication. So even though grunting can be really hard to hear all day long, try to remember it is a first step for expressive language skills.

When your child is grunting or whining they are showing an intent to communicate with you and that they know they're supposed to make some sounds (which is great!). So...great news...but what do we do now? 

1. Be a detective

As parents, we need to figure out what our child is trying to communicate. Are they requesting an item? Are they looking at something and wanting you to look too (otherwise known as “joint attention”)? 

To be a good detective, we need to look at what our child is doing and looking at. You might even have to get down to their level and follow their eye gaze to really see what they see. Are they pointing at something? What are they near? Did they move to the pantry? Did they go get their shoes? Where are their toys that are out of their reach?

2. Model what language they could have used instead

Once you’ve figured out the “why,” repeat the words in many different ways in a short span of time. For instance, if they wanted crackers, you can say, “You want crackers!” “Let’s eat crackers!” “Oh, you’re hungry for crackers!”

It can also be helpful to pair the word with a gesture or picture of the item, especially if your child is not able to say the word yet. You can sign both “eat” and “crackers,” and then follow up by eating the delicious snack together.

Don’t worry! Pairing a sign with a spoken word does NOT delay a child, but instead actually helps them access spoken words faster.

3. Affirm your child’s emotions

When your child grunts or screams, let them know that you are listening. The following script might help: “I hear you. I don’t know what you’re asking for. Show me what you need.” Use whatever words your child will understand, like “point to what you want” or “bring me to what you need.”

4. Take non-grunting sounds seriously

Any time your child attempts to make a sound that isn’t grunting, take it seriously, even if it doesn’t sound anything like the word! Giving them positive feedback lets them know that other sounds can be effective at getting them what they want or need.

5. Avoid withholding

It’s never a good idea to withhold an item just because your child didn’t use the “real” word for the item. Rather than encouraging them to find the right word, it usually only increases frustration. Instead, you can try:

  • A 10-15 second wait time
  • Offering a choice of two options
  • Trying a fill-in-the-blank statement

6. Consider Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

If you feel like you’ve already been trying these strategies, but your child is really struggling to access new vocabulary, I encourage you to look into an AAC. These speech-generating devices are another great outlet for your child to express themselves and will alleviate so much frustration!

Again, don’t worry! Using an AAC will NOT delay your child’s speech or mean that your child won’t use vocabulary in the future. Research shows that AAC actually helps your child learn and speak more.

7. Consult with your pediatrician

If you have a child who grunts but does not point or look back at you or the object, or who will only hand-lead you to an object, I recommend talking to your pediatrician about why their joint attention might look different than what is considered developmentally appropriate. 

Mother holding toddler boy

Want more details on these strategies? Check out my YouTube video!

Click here to see my new YouTube video, “My Toddler Grunts Instead of Talking” where I discuss the 7 tips above in greater detail. While you’re there, please feel free to drop a note in the comments about any other topics you would like to see me cover. Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel to access all my videos and get alerts when I post new ones!

I’m rooting for you! You’ve got this!


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