If your 1-year-old isn’t talking yet, you may feel a bit anxious. After all, you’re waiting to hear those magical first words. You may be wondering whether it’s “normal” for an 18-month-old to be nonverbal, or when to be concerned.
To determine if your toddler is on track, it’s helpful to know the milestones in a young child’s language development. Let’s take a look at the communication milestones for 1- to 2-year-olds, at what age toddlers should start talking, and what to do if your child seems to be behind.
Understanding delays in speech and language
It’s helpful to know that language development can be divided into two categories: expressive language and receptive language.
Expressive language refers to how a person communicates their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. We typically think about communication in terms of using words, but nonverbal language is communication, too! Pointing, gesturing, and using signs are all considered expressive language. Having an expressive language disorder makes it difficult for a child to express what they want, need, or feel.
Receptive language is what a person is able to understand of the words spoken to them. For example, if a parent says, “Stop!” or “Come here!,” the child has to understand the meaning of those words in order to respond appropriately. Children who are delayed in receptive language have trouble understanding conversation and knowing how to respond when someone tells them something. This can make communication difficult between a child and caregiver.
Some children may only be delayed in one area: receptive or expressive language. But many times, children can have a mixed language delay, where they have problems with both receptive and expressive language.
Now that we’ve covered what receptive and expressive language are, let’s look at some of the communication skills that should develop at 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months old.
Milestones for toddlers ages 12 to 18 months
Receptive language skills (12-18 months)
Responding to their name
Following simple one-step directions, such as “Come here,” “Sit down,” “Give me _____.”
Playing: As a general rule, your child should be able to engage in some kind of a play activity for at least 1-2 minutes before switching tasks. This focused attention allows for more chances to use words and interact back-and-forth with another person. For example, when reading, your 18-month-old should be able to sit long enough to engage with you and the book. They may even begin pointing to pictures in the book when asked.
Playing with objects: In this stage, your child should begin to play with and use objects appropriately. For example, they may hold a phone up to their ear or pretend to drink from a toy cup. As your child begins to use objects for their intended purpose, it means that more imaginative and pretend play skills are just around the corner.
Expressive language skills (12-18 months)
First words: Children typically say their first word somewhere around 12 months old. However, it could be a little earlier or later. You may begin to hear the word "no" pretty frequently from your 1-year-old, as they express their newfound independence.
Spontaneous utterances: Children learn to imitate the sounds and words you say before producing them on their own. While toddlers should still be imitating new words, they should begin to say words spontaneously as well. For example, an 18-month-old should be able to say something like “milk!” when thirsty, or “ball!” when they want to play. They’re beginning to make the connection that communication is key to getting what they want.
Consonant sounds: Your toddler should start to use several different consonant sounds in their words or babbles. The earliest developing sounds include /b/, /p/, /m/, /n/, and /d/. Children who are 18 months old should be able to produce most of these consonants by themselves.
Milestones for toddlers ages 18 to 24 months
Receptive language skills (18-24 months)
Comprehension skills: Between the ages of 18 months and 2 years old, your child should undergo a big jump in their comprehension abilities. Toddlers should be able to understand at least 50 different words spoken to them, even if they can’t say all of them. You can observe this by watching how your child responds to simple directions and how well they identify objects. If you’re talking about shoes or a dog, your toddler should be able to point to those things.
Playing appropriately: You should see your toddler start to play more appropriately with items, such as using two objects together: pretending to mix a spoon in a bowl, or giving a baby doll a bottle. Similarly, you should see your child start to use objects toward themselves and others. Your toddler may pretend to feed you or brush your hair.
Eye contact: As you play with your toddler, they should be making consistent eye contact with you.
Expressive language skills (18-24 months)
More vocabulary: By 18-24 months, your child should be saying at least 5-10 words regularly and spontaneously. They should also continue to imitate words they hear. Some simple words your child may use to ask for things include “more,” “help,” “eat,” and “go.”
Consonant-vowel combinations: When your child imitates or uses words, they may use different combinations of consonants and vowels. For example, you may hear a consonant-vowel (CV) production, as in “go,” or an approximation of the word boat as “bo.” You may also hear consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel (CVCV) productions, like “wawa” for water. And finally, you may even hear some emerging consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) productions, like “pop” or “mom.” As your child grows, their attempts at words will begin sounding more and more like true words.
Two-word phrases: Some toddlers in this age range will begin to use very simple two-word phrases, like “I want,” “Give me,” or “More please.” Most children will meet this milestone at, or just past, age 2 years old.
If your 1-year-old is not developing some of these skills, this could be a sign of a language or speech delay. Take a look at the communication milestones for ages birth to 12 months, too, to see how they are doing with these skills.
Now, let’s discuss what to do if your 1-year-old isn’t talking or meeting other communication milestones.
Find a speech therapist for your toddler
Your first step is to find a speech therapist for your toddler. The earlier a child receives intervention, the sooner they can begin gaining language skills! Language development builds skill by skill, much like a staircase. You have to take each step one at a time to make it to the top. If a child doesn’t develop the skills that are next in line for them, they won’t be able to meet the skills that come after.
The earlier a child receives intervention, the sooner they can begin gaining language skills!
To find a speech therapist, start by talking to your child’s pediatrician. They will likely have some recommendations for speech therapist. They can write a script for speech therapy if necessary.
You can also call speech therapists or speech therapy practices yourself. They can walk you through the steps necessary for beginning therapy.
Before beginning speech therapy, your toddler will be evaluated. This will help the speech therapist understand your child’s current communicative strengths and weaknesses. This is also a great time to talk to the speech therapist about your goals for your child. Your speech therapist will partner with you to help your child make progress toward these goals.
Most children have speech therapy sessions one to two times per week. The length of time in treatment can vary. Working closely with your speech therapist and practicing frequently at home can help your child make progress faster.
4 ways to improve your child’s speech at home
You may be wondering what you can do at home to help your toddler with their speech and language. Good news: There is a lot you can practice! And it doesn’t require any big changes or expensive materials. Communication practice can happen during the simple, everyday interactions you have with your child.
1 Get down to their level and play!
Many people don’t realize that play is a huge part of a child’s development. Did you know that play mimics communication? When two people play together, one person takes a turn, then the other person, and so on. These back-and-forth actions are similar to communication.
Taking the time to play with your child can make a big difference in their speech and language development. If you’re not sure where to start, try these fun and practical playtime ideas.
2 Make time to read together every day
Spending time reading with your little one offers amazing benefits for their communication skills. Children who hear one book a day are exposed to 78,000 extra words per year. How incredible is that?
Reading together allows your child to learn more words, understand how sentences are structured, and even increase their phonological awareness skills. This refers to a child’s ability to recognize the sounds that make up words and their meanings. These speech and language abilities are linked to a child’s academic abilities as they grow older. Plus, reading together helps strengthen the bond you have with your child. So make storytime part of your daily routine!
3 Practice imitation skills
Imitation abilities are also important for a child’s speech and language development. If your child isn’t yet mimicking any sounds, spend some time practicing animal sounds, or the sounds of trains and cars. They tend to be fun and motivating for toddlers to copy!
Once your child is imitating these sounds, you can move onto speech sounds such as vowels and consonants–think simple babbles like “ma-ma.” As your child improves in this area, you can move on to simple word imitation.
If you’ve tried all of this and your child is still struggling with verbal imitation, try gesture imitation. Children have to learn to copy gestures and movements before moving on to speech. These can be simple gestures such as waving, blowing kisses, and clapping hands.
4 Model language for your child
One of the simplest and most effective things you can do for your kiddo is to model, or demonstrate, language for them. It’s easy: Just talk to them often, even if they don’t respond to you. Children learn so much from the people they spend the most time with. Your child can learn words, the meaning of words, and how to pronounce them simply by watching and listening to what you do!
Remember, as your child’s caregiver and advocate, you play an incredibly important role in their life. If you have a concern about your toddler’s development, trust your gut and reach out to a speech therapist. They are here as a source of expertise and support to help your child along their communication journey.