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Talking to your toddler

5-minute read

Toddlers are naturally chatty and engaging. At times, it may seem like they have a lot to say, yet what escapes is just a jumble of sounds. With time and practice, toddlers learn how to make their speech clearer and have conversations which make more sense.

How do I understand my toddler?

Toddlers’ behaviour is driven by a range of impulses and needs. Often, they seem to understand much more than we give them credit for. However, it’s important to remember that no matter how bright they appear, a toddler’s brain really is a work in progress. Language development does not always match understanding or other areas of development.

Toddlers also copy other people’s behaviour and language. They quickly learn what’s acceptable and what will bring them lots of lovely attention.

Toddlers are not good at assessing risk or making safe choices. Tantrums are a common outcome when toddlers feel they’re being stopped from doing something they want to do. Loud crying protests, with few words, are the hallmarks of a toddler’s ‘emotional storm’.

How do toddlers learn to talk?

Toddlers are continually expanding their language skills by:

  • building on early language skills which start in infancy
  • listening to others and copying what they hear
  • making sounds and watching for the responses they bring
  • speaking with a variety of people, such as other children, adults and their siblings
  • chewing and swallowing — sucking on bottles and dummies (pacifiers) can delay speech development

How do I support my toddler’s language development?

It’s important not to insulate your toddler’s experiences with the world. Social intelligence and speech are supported by thousands of hours of being around and listening to others communicate.

You can help your toddler by:

  • encouraging them to be part of everyday household conversations
  • slowly and correctly pronouncing any mispronounced words — make sure your child can see your mouth move as you form sounds correctly
  • not criticising their attempts to say words and genuinely offer them praise for trying — it can often be amusing how small children use words or phrases when they’re learning how to talk, but just be careful they don’t feel hurt

Language and speech development

Language and speech development

Learn how you can help your child to talk and develop their language and speech skills.

How do I talk to my toddler?

There is no one right way to converse with your toddler. In the same way your toddler is their own person, you too will have a unique way of interacting with them.

Make up games and songs and involve your child in these. Encourage them to take turns and be part of the fun.

Notice what interests your toddler. Take their lead and follow their attempts at talking. Try not to always be in charge or initiate the conversations.

Chat with your toddler when you’re in the car. Tell them what you can see and encourage them to look and talk as well.

Include reading in your child’s daily routine. Make time to share books and stories. Give books as presents, go to the library and let your toddler see you reading too.

How do I create a supportive learning environment?

There are several ways you can provide your toddler with a supportive environment in which to learn:

  • Provide your toddler with a range of interactive toys to play with. They won’t need a lot to benefit; however, they will need more complex toys than when they were small. Toys which have a cause and effect — for example, bats and balls, puzzles and shapes — will help your toddler link effort with outcome.
  • Focus on having an open and comfortable relationship with your toddler. If they feel safe and accepted, they’re more likely to engage with you.
  • Include your toddler in everyday conversations and chats.
  • Sit together at mealtimes where possible and help them to feel included.
  • If you live in a multilingual household, speak in the language you prefer. Children who are exposed to more than one language can take a little longer to develop proficiency in their ‘heritage’ language. However, by preschool years, most catch up to their peers.

What should I look out for and when should I get help?

All toddlers develop in their own way and time. Many factors play a role in speech development, but most importantly are their genetics, environment and stimulation.

Have your toddler checked if they:

  • become upset or want your reassurance if a stranger approaches
  • avoid eye contact
  • don’t make attempts to talk or if they regress in talking or in any other area of their development
  • become silent and don’t want to engage
  • don’t talk or make any attempt to talk
  • stutter

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

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Last reviewed: June 2021

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The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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