How do toddlers and young children communicate?
Toddlers are naturally chatty and have a lot they want to say. With time and practice, they will learn how to:
- make their speech clearer
- have conversations which make more sense
Language development does not always match understanding. Children can understand much more than we give them credit for.
Toddlers behaviour is driven by a range of impulses and needs. They may have temper tantrums to express feelings like anger.
As your toddlers brain develops, they will learn to use words to communicate.
How do children learn to talk?
Toddlers build up their language skills by:
- watching people around them
- 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, their siblings and adults
- copying other peoples behaviour and language to get attention
You can help your toddlers speech and language development by giving them lots of chances to practise. You can do this by talking to them.
How do I talk to my toddler?
There's no one right way to talk with your toddler. In the same way your toddler is their own person, you and your family will have your own ways of using language and talking to each other.
Notice what interests your toddler. Take their lead and follow their attempts at talking. Try not to always be in charge of the conversations.
Your child will benefit from open and responsive communication. Responding to their attempts to talk will support your toddlers sense of security. When you respond, tune into their needs — think about what they might be asking for.
Chat with your toddler or child when you're out and about. This can include when you're in the car. Tell them where you're going and what you can see. Encourage them to look and talk as well.
Use all kinds of words, not just the names of things. Describe what you are doing or feeling.
It can help to:
- be open to giving them your full attention when you can
- make some time each day just to enjoy each other — reading and going for a walk are all great opportunities to talk
- be involved in their games when they want you to take part
- observe your child's body language — this will give you more clues as to what theyre trying to say
- accept that sometimes theyll just want to be quiet and not as chatty
How do I create a supportive learning environment?
There are several ways you can provide your toddler or child with a supportive environment in which to learn to talk and listen.
- include your toddler or child in everyday chats
- sit with your child at mealtimes and help them to feel included in the conversation
If you live in a multilingual household, speak the language you prefer. Children who are exposed to more than one language may sometimes mix them up, but they develop language at the same rate as other children.
Focus on having an open and comfortable relationship with your toddler, help them to feel safe and accepted.
Provide your toddler with a range of interactive toys to play with. Toys can help them develop. As they get older they will need more complex toys than when they were a baby.
Songs and games
Make up games and songs and involve your child in these. Encourage them to take turns and be part of the fun.
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.
Tips to help your child develop good communication
- Think about your own communication style. If you're naturally a quiet person and your child is a talker, there could be challenges in the ways you communicate. Look for opportunities where conversations are natural and feel comfortable for you both.
- Ask your child questions about how their day has been or what they think or feel about something.
- Let your child start conversations.
- Involve them as much as possible in family discussions and respect their input.
- Give your child positive feedback and let them know that their ideas are valuable.
- Encourage older siblings to give younger ones time to talk, instead of speaking over them.
- Answer your child's questions in a clear, simple, age-appropriate way. Young children have a limited attention span for active listening.
- Talk about feelings and name their emotions — for example, you can say: 'You look like you're feeling sad'. Its valuable for children to learn that its okay to feel negative emotions and that they are safe to express what's worrying them.
- Children benefit from feeling that they are the focus of their parents attention. Be aware of distractions like televisions, screens and phones that compete for your attention.
- Give your child praise when they try to communicate.
- Its normal for your child to use pretend words and toilet words like 'poo', 'wee' and 'bum'.
- Active listening and communication can be tiring. Its okay to take breaks from chatting with your child.
- Have fun with your child. Communicate with your child in lots of ways such as singing, dancing and reading.
Language and speech development
Learn how you can help your child to talk and develop their language and speech skills.
How do I know if my child's language development is on track?
As children develop, they get better at saying words clearly. All children develop in their own way and time.
Many factors play a role in speech development, such as your child's:
Toddler speech development milestones
By 12 to 18 months your toddler should:
- be making babbling sounds
- saying 6 to 20 single words like 'no', 'dad', 'dog'
- be able to point to familiar things when you ask
By 2 years old your toddler should be:
- saying 50 single words
- putting two words together
- asking for simple things
- trying out different sounds but make mistakes
Pre-schooler speech development milestones
By the time your child reaches 4 to 5 years, look for them to be:
- asking 'what', 'why' and 'when' questions
- speaking in short sentences
- having conversations with their friends or family
- having clear speech, though they may still be a little less clear when pronouncing 'th','z', r', 's' and 'v'
- learning their name, age and address
When should I seek help?
See your doctor or other healthcare professional if you any doubts about your toddlers or child's speech or language development.
This may include if your child's speech and language development slows down or seems to go backwards.
Also seek help if your child:
- becomes very quiet and avoids engaging with others
- has frequent colds, ear infections or signs of hearing loss
- becomes upset or wants your reassurance if a stranger approaches
- avoids eye contact
- doesn't talk or make any attempt to talk
- stutters or lisps such as when pronouncing 's a'nd 'c s'ounds
- cant be understood by adults
Resources and Support
You can find more information through Speech Pathology Australia.
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.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: June 2023