Parents ask me all the time, “Is this normal?” or “Should my 18-month-old be doing X by now?” Every toddler is different. Even siblings in the same family can reach different milestones at different times. So how do you know if your sweet toddler is on track or might need a little extra help?
The first step to helping your little one communicate well is knowing what typical speech and language development looks like. I’ve actually put together a checklist for you to help you know exactly what communication skills to expect from ages 3 months to 3 years. Keep in mind, these are general guidelines to give you an idea of what to look for in your child.
The second step is awareness of the foundational language skills that develop before words:
Before any child can be expected to use a word purposefully to communicate, they need to understand what that word means. For example, your child won’t request ‘milk’ if they don’t know what milk is.
Babbling is how babies practice using speech sounds before they can put them together to form words. Babbling typically starts between 6-9 months and continues through 18 months and sometimes age 2 alongside true words. Over time, babbling decreases and true words take over. If you would classify your little one as “quiet” or your 18 month old has limited babbling, this could indicate a hearing issue.
Gestures are how toddlers communicate before they can say words. We expect 16 gestures by 16 months. This can include, but is not limited to, waving, clapping, reaching the arms up to be picked up, giving items, showing items, etc. The gestures your child uses will vary depending on what gestures you use!
Joint Attention is when you and your child are both focusing on the same thing and you’re both aware that you’re sharing that experience.When you are your toddler are both focused on the same thing, it’s the optimal time for learning new words. This can look like your toddler shifting their eye gaze between you and an object or activity. This can also look like your 18-month-old pointing somethnig out to you, like an airplane in the sky and looking to you to see if you’ve seen it too. Joint attention also includes your child making bids for your own attention like showing you things with an outstretched arm or by pointing.
Imitation is so important because it’s how your little one gets practice saying words before they can be expected to use them on their own. If you think about it, imitation is how babies and toddlers learn just about anything. When a toddler isn’t mimicking, we often see their language development stall. Imitation is a foundational skill that needs to be strengthened before we can expect a toddler to talk on their own.
What counts as a word?
Your 18-month-old might even say more words than you think! Parents are often surprised to find out that the following count as words:
- Animal sounds: moo, baaa, quack, ruff
- Play Sounds: Growling, snoring, slurping sounds
- Fun words: Beep beep! Uh-oh! Yay!
- Words in other languages - if you speak more than one language at home, count the words in ALL languages, not just English. Even if they are two words for the same thing (e.g., milk and leche)
Words can be counted when used purposefully to communicate, independently (not imitation), and consistently (they didn’t say it once and never again)--even if your 18-month-old doesn’t say them perfectly!
Do signs count as words?
Signs are words in a signed language and they do count toward your child’s expressive vocabulary; however, if your toddler is excelling at sign language, but their speech isn’t catching up, this tells us some valuable information–that their language skills are developing, but their speech sounds are lagging behind. In this case I recommend a hearing test and a speech and language evaluation to find out why speech isn’t developing. Learn the difference between your toddler’s speech and language here.
How many words should my 18-month-old be saying?
Here are a few speech and language skills you can out look for (not a complete list–see all the skills by downloading my free checklist)
Typical expressive language by the end of 18 months:
- Uses between 10-50 words (minimum of 10 by 18 months)
- Imitates new words frequently
- Names 5-7 familiar objects on request
- Nods head “yes”
Typical receptive language by the end of 18 months:
- Understands 50+ words
- Consistently follows simple 1-step commands (e.g., “Give me” or “Go get your shoes”)
- Understands some prepositions (e.g., in, on)
- Points to familiar people and objects in pictures
Characteristics of language delay at 18 months
So, now that you have a better understanding of typical speech and development for an 18-month-old, let’s talk a little bit about language delay. Speech-language pathologists like me use the term “language delay” to describe when a child’s ability to communicate and express themselves (including their vocabulary size and comprehension skills) might be lagging behind what is typical for most other kids of the same age.
In addition to not meeting the guidelines above, your child might also:
- Be exceptionally quiet, especially compared to peers and siblings
- Not speak words or even make babbling sounds
- Make no attempt to combine consonants and vowels or imitate words to try to communicate through speech
- Have difficulty socializing with others
- Struggle with communication in general, including non-verbal communication (e.g., not using gestures)
When to seek help
You know your child best. After reading through all the information above, if you’re having concerns about your child’s language development, it’s never a bad idea to talk to your pediatrician or even consult with a licensed speech-language pathologist. If you have a family history of learning difficulties, speech delay, or language delay, or if your child is showing developmental delay in other areas in addition to communication, it’s important to discuss that information with your pediatrician or speech pathologist.
Want something you can do RIGHT NOW to help your little one? Check out my Raising Little Talkers course! I developed the course to teach parents just like you exactly how to communicate with your child like a speech therapist, so you can get them talking as quickly as possible. I also have lots of YouTube videos and online resources full of tips and proven strategies that you can incorporate into what you’re already doing with your child.
My method has helped thousands of families connect and communicate better with their little ones. And I hope it can do the same for you.
I’m rooting for you!