Updated: May 7, 2020
If your toddler is 12-18 months old and doesn’t readily imitate words, it’s important to back up and make sure your child has mastered the steps that come before verbal imitation.
Imitation is so critical because it's how our little ones learn to talk--by copying us! In typically developing babies, imitation starts in infancy. All toddlers, whether talking on-time or late, will first imitate actions (gestures) and sounds.
If you're thinking, "My child already does those things", I want you to consider whether the imitation is immediate and consistent. Immediate imitation is when you wave and your child waves right back, you clap and your child joins in by clapping too, etc. Delayed imitation is also normal, but not what I’m talking about here. Delayed imitation is when your child sees you do something, for example, sweeping the floor, and then at some point they pretend to sweep the floor. Consistent imitation is when you wave and your child waves back every time, not sometimes or occasionally.
If you’re thinking “well my child KINDA imitates” or “my child can imitate SOMETIMES” it might be that the skill is emerging, but isn’t mastered yet and therefore needs to be strengthened before we can expect words to be readily imitated.
Some examples of actions that children imitate in typical development are: shaking head no, waving, clapping, raising arms up, blowing on hot food, blowing kisses, and putting hand on hand next to face like going to sleep.
Some examples of sounds that children imitate in typical development are: "mmm" while eating, munching/slurping noises, blow raspberries, siren noises, car/truck noises (beep beep, vroom), animal sounds (moo, baa), ssshhh, pretend cough/sneeze, pretend cry/laugh, panting like a dog, and a "gasp!" sound.
So how do you get your toddler to imitate actions and sounds? Repeatedly model appropriately in context during play! Establishing verbal routines where you repeat the same words in the same context help your child learn the meaning of those words that they will eventually imitate. Read my blog post on verbal routines to learn more.