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How to Get your Toddler Talking
When a baby is born, they come with a couple of different means of communicating, but unfortunately speech is not one of them. They communicate with body language, facial expressions, and crying. They eventually learn how to use their eyes and how to giggle and to coo. By the time they are a toddler, they pretty much know what their parents and caregivers are saying to them, and they are on the cusp of being able to produce those words on their own. Slowly, over the course of the next few years, their speech catches up with their understanding and they are capable of using words to communicate. Do they immediately replace their nonverbal communication with words as they learn them? Not at first. Sometimes, not at all. They’ve grown so accustomed to communicating without words that it seems that they directly go to crying, reaching, and grunting to tell you their needs. As a parent, you too have grown accustomed to these means of communication and the change in their cognitive ability comes along so gradually that you may not even realize that your child’s capabilities have expanded. I have found that, despite a toddler’s growing vocabulary, they still resort to screaming and crying as a first means of communication when they want something because it’s all they know. So, how do we get them to communicate beyond that?
Since children understand speech before they can use it, and as they are capable of interacting with speech through other means of communication such as body language, using sign language is a pretty effective way to help your baby communicate more clearly before they start using verbal speech. Many people use certain simple signs when their baby is young—milk, more, no, eat, mom, and dad. I didn’t use a lot of baby sign with my first two children, but we did learn a couple words. When my son would scream for certain things and I knew what he wanted, I would respond with the thing in question and the sign that corresponded. “More? You want more?” I asked, while signing more. “Show me more.” Soon, he was learning to use these few signs to speak to me, but he still preferred just screaming, grunting, or reaching. At this point, unless there were other circumstances (like he needed a nap or bumped his knee), I limited my response to his nonverbal communication, and I waited until he gave me a sign or attempted to say a word.
Also, as a parent, you are always watching for the first signs of speech in your child. “Mama,” “Dada,” and “no,” are generally some of the first words they learn to say. I don’t know about you, but until my child gets somewhere past fifty words, I have a running tally of their verbal dictionary. With their abilities in mind I said things like, “Do you want milk? Do you want to drink milk? Yes or no? Can you say yes? Say yes.” Sometimes, they were quick to use their words to communicate a response to my prompting, and sometimes it just made them aggravated. “You have to use your words, baby,” my husband and I said to them over and over. Gradually, they learned that they could communicate much more efficiently with words and they slowly began trading nonverbal communication for speech.
Even once they learn how to speak, I find that toddlers and preschoolers still struggle to put their feelings and experiences into words. This is a typical conversation in my house:
“Did you hit your sister?”
“Because I said so!”, “I don’t know.” (or a blank stare)
They don’t know how to respond to open ended questions such as “why.” My two and a half year old son speaks in full sentences. He even tells me short stories. Still, he can’t give the thorough explanation I’m looking for. Instead, I’ve learned to ask leading questions?
“Did your sister do something to make you sad? Are you angry? Did she take one of your toys? Did you feel happy or angry about that?” These are questions my son knows how to navigate. Asking yes or no questions and either or questions is a great way to give your toddler the tools to begin communicating more effectively for themselves, especially when it comes to discussing emotions, behaviors, and consequences.
One day, this difficult time where crying and body language are sometimes the first means of communication will come to an end and you will find that your precious little baby is now a child who is quite capable of creatively expressing themselves all on their own. Watching a human being’s personality unfold from baby to child is an amazing thing to behold and their ability to communicate is what makes that development possible. Right now, while your toddler learns to expand his communication past body language and cries to actual speech, be patient and try your best to guide them and they’ll get along just fine.