When Your Toddler Won’t Talk

A year ago, my son was about to turn 2 and had never said the word “Mama.”

Or “Dada.” Or “ball.” Or “up.” Mason was silent and stoic, and we were nervous.

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Our pediatrician frowned at the communication questionnaires I filled out and recommended speech therapy. I frantically Googled things like “2 year old won’t talk” and tried to ignore the voice in my head: autism autism autism!

We did everything we could think of to get him talking. We talked and read to him constantly, we bought flashcards with bright pictures on them, we implemented ideas from the book our pediatrician recommended.

I remember being with Mason at the library and chatting with another mom, whose son was 9 months younger than mine and talking up a storm. I was so envious of their interactions. “You’re right, that is a ball! Yes, a blue ball!” When she asked how old my son was and I told her, she looked confused. (Or maybe I just imagined it.)

During a parent-teacher conference at Mason’s daycare, I saw two words on his development report that I’ll never forget. Under communication skills: “extremely delayed.” I went home in tears.

Today, Mason is a few months from his third birthday, and he’s a total chatterbox. His vocabulary includes hundreds of words–too many to count, and more every day. His pronunciation isn’t as sharp as some kids’, and his sentences aren’t quite as sophisticated, but you’d never guess that a year ago he was only babbling.

If you’re the mom of a quiet toddler: be encouraged.

We all know that every child is different, and that they all learn at their own pace–or at least, we “know” that–but those darned milestones have a way of shaking our faith. (Unless our kids are meeting them early, in which case: look how smart they are!)

And of course, we ALL have friends whose kids are doing things sooner/better/easier…

One thing I’ve learned is to to recognize when a behavior is more a reflection of my son’s personality than his development or my parenting. Even though he’s talking now, Mason is still a reserved kid by nature. It takes him awhile to warm up to new environments and new people, and until he does that, he’s quiet. (I know: not the worst thing in the world for a toddler!)

Oh, and we did get that speech therapist, for a few months. She was wonderful with Mason, but she helped me even more. She had complete confidence in my son, when my own was faltering, and she gave me things to do so I could feel like I was “helping.”

In the end, though: my son talked when he was ready. Not a second sooner.

If you’re the mom of a late talker, and you find yourself wanting to feel like you’re helping, here are a few ideas to try. (This is a mix of tips and tricks from our speech therapist and our own experiences–but as always, remember that every child responds to things differently!)

Get your child’s ears checked

I was extremely reluctant to do this, since Mason seemed to hear fine–he reacted to sounds, responded to his name, etc. But even a small amount of hearing loss can impair speech development. (I’ve read that it’s like being underwater–imagine trying to learn a foreign language that way!)

In the end, a visit to the audiologist did detect some hearing loss, and the doctor recommended ear tubes. Mason didn’t start speaking until several months after the tubes, so we’re not sure how much we can credit them with his progress, but we definitely didn’t regret getting them. (Bonus side effect: no ear infections!)

Figure out what motivates your child

This was our speech therapist’s very first piece of advice. The idea is to teach kids that communication helps them get things they want–it’s not just for pleasing Mom and Dad. So instead of encouraging them to talk just for the sake of talking (“can you say Mama?”), save the prompting for things they care about.

Food and drink are common motivators. If your child wants a drink, withhold the cup a little bit and see if he’ll say “milk” (or whatever) to get it.

Encourage interaction through sounds

Sounds are precursors to speech and a great place to start. Talking about animal sounds is perfect for this, especially if your child is into animals.

Our son was into one thing, and one thing only: cars. So, our speech therapist encouraged as much vroom-vrooming and beep-beeping as possible.

Let them finish

Mason’s first word was “go,” and we got him to say it by prompting him with the phrase “ready, set, go.” We started using the phrase while playing with his cars, and once we were sure he was familiar with it, we’d say “ready, set…” and then wait. We did this over and over and over, and eventually, it clicked.

This method works great with books too–especially rhyming ones. Once you’ve read the child the book several times, try pausing before the last word of an easy sentence to see if he’ll fill in the blank. We still do this all the time with Mason, and he loves the opportunities to participate.

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Get the child’s attention

We were coached to come down to Mason’s eye level and wait until he looked at us to speak (when prompting him). It was amazing how often we weren’t taking the time for this simple step.

Wait longer than usual for responses

We noticed that if we gave Mason a prompt and he didn’t make an effort to respond right away, we’d keep repeating the prompt. “Up? Can you say up? Do you want up?” But the problem wasn’t that he hadn’t heard us.

Eventually, we learned to wait an uncomfortable amount of time after a prompt, to give him plenty of time to respond if he wanted to.

Keep the pressure off

Mason used to get (actually, still gets) stage fright if he felt like he was being put on the spot. Sometimes, when he’d be playing alone, I’d overhear him making car sounds and bud in with comments like, “that’s right, buddy, vroom-vroom!” When he’d realize I’d been listening, he’d look flustered and immediately clam up. #fail!

Make a personalized picture book

Mama and Dada are often kids’ first words because they’re easy to say. But for some kids, the in-their-face interaction that’s usually happening when they’re taught those words can be intimidating. It can be helpful to encourage speech while focusing on something else–like a book.

We got a blank board book, like this one, and filled it with pictures of my husband and I, as well as all of Mason’s favorite things: a car, a truck, Elmo, and Mickey, plus some easy-to-say words like dog and ball. He loved it!

Don’t let the milestone police get you down

In retrospect, I wish I wouldn’t have let my pediatrician’s concerns get to me so much. I understand the importance of early intervention in some cases, but my son wasn’t showing any other concerning signs, and I had so many people (including the speech therapist) assuring me he’d catch up. Why was I so focused on the worst case scenario?

My final tip (and this applies to basically anything parenting-related): whatever you do, beware of Google!

 

To mimic what I heard many, many times during that phase: hang in there, Mama. Before you know it, your kid will be talking your ear off, and you’ll look back with fondness on those sweet, silent days.

40 Responses to When Your Toddler Won’t Talk

  1. M January 27, 2015 at 8:57 am #

    My oldest was just past 2 before she talked. Being the 1st we, too, were sure she would not talk. When she finally did, it was like a little adult. She is still a quiet girl at 40. She is a listener. As the 1st grandchild she got everything by just pointing — had no need to talk.

    • Kim
      Kim January 27, 2015 at 10:25 pm #

      Interesting! Yes, I think this being our first child made the whole situation that much more stressful!

  2. Tara
    Tara January 27, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

    Wonderful article Kim! I wish I had known all of this a year ago myself! I too was worried when my daughter at almost 2 barely spoke and everyone thought she was so much younger than she was but at 3 she too can talk up a storm. You are right that early intervention is important but also we need to let go of the milestone police:)

    • Kim
      Kim January 27, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

      Exactly! I can’t fault my pediatrician for trying to help, but she probably didn’t realize how much stress she caused me. 🙂

  3. Stacy January 27, 2015 at 7:39 pm #

    This is my story for my twins! They are over 2 and barely saying anything. I’ve already done all of these suggestions to feel like I am helping. You have no idea how much better this article made me feel! To top it off, I’m a teacher so I fe very judged about their “delay.” Thanks so much for writing this!

    • Kim
      Kim January 27, 2015 at 10:37 pm #

      I’m so glad you found the article comforting! My son didn’t really start talking until 2 1/2, and it was a VERY slow process at first, but now I already can’t remember what it was like before he talked. It’s so hard not to worry, especially when everyone around you seems so worried–tried to ignore them! Turn up your nose and stick up for your kiddos. 🙂 I love that you put the word delay in quotes, too…why in the WORLD do we use that word in relation to milestones, when milestones are just general guidelines by definition?? Anyway…I hope you feel encouraged, Stacy. You’re not as alone as you might think (and neither are your kids).

  4. deb January 29, 2015 at 10:31 am #

    As a foster parent, I have cared for multiple kids with a speech delay, several very severe. I am very familiar with Early Intervention and grateful for their help. The book “The Late Talker” was also very helpful in giving suggestions of things to try, especially with kids with apraxia.

    • Kim
      Kim February 4, 2015 at 3:45 pm #

      Thanks Deb!

  5. Amy January 29, 2015 at 3:26 pm #

    Thank you for this. My son was born very early (23 weeks). He has several medical-types following his progress and at every appointment we are asked about everything he is and is not doing. It’s so very hard to know what he’s going to do at his own pace and what might be cause for concern/intervention. We are trying everything for speech resources because our insurance won’t cover them (don’t even get me started on that!). I’m hopeful that a bit of intervention will get him on the right track!

    • Kim
      Kim February 4, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

      I’m hopeful for you too! It’s impossible not to stress about it, but know that you’re doing everything you can for your son. The rest is up to him & to time.

    • Candice February 7, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

      Amy, have you looked into your states early steps program? These people are wonderful! I was lucky in that our pediatrician provided me with information or I would never had known about them. Children under 3 with speech, motor, or developmental delays are accepted. Medicaid fully pays for the therapist (Who will come to You, home, daycare, wherever). If your child isn’t covered by medicaid they do charge but it is income based, not sure the scale. Look into this program and see if your state has it, they helped our daughter (and us) immensely! Wishing you the best.

  6. Pam January 29, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

    This couldn’t have come at a better time. My guy is 2 and isn’t a talker and it has me worried. We did start speech therapy this week. When I hear other lo’s his age or younger talking up a storm it worries me. I know they do things at their own pace but it’s just hard.

    • Kim
      Kim February 4, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

      Yes, so hard. You might be surprised how many others aren’t talking much either, though…it’s just the big talkers who stand out to us and get us all scared! My best to you and your family!

  7. Nichole January 31, 2015 at 7:11 am #

    Thank you so much for this article. Our little girl is 2 and still not speaking. We are doing speech therapy once a week, it has helped a little, however I just can’t wait for her to say mama! Thank you again for this special message!

    • Kim
      Kim February 4, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

      She WILL! And it will be everything you hoped it would be. 🙂 Hang in there, Nichole!

  8. Laura February 1, 2015 at 10:06 am #

    I love this! Thanks so much for sharing tips that worked for you and also, reassurance that every baby is unique in their own way. I tell this to moms of the babies I care for and my mom friends all the time. Each baby is unique and excels at whatever fits their personality. Sometimes I’m jealous of the babies who sleep through the night and can sit through story time and nurse without popping off 100 times to look around the room. But then I’m reminded that that’s just part of her adventurous nature. I’m so lucky to have a happy, chatty baby who’s trying to climb the couches and can’t play with her toys for longer than 5 minutes. It keeps me on my toes and entertained and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Bless you and your beautiful baby for being perfectly unique!! xoxo

    • Kim
      Kim February 4, 2015 at 3:52 pm #

      YES, thanks Laura! So true, and somehow SO easy to forget.

  9. Jorye February 1, 2015 at 3:58 pm #

    So it took me about four tries to finish this blog through without sobbing!!! My son turned 2 in November and is still not talking, he hums a lot and babbles but still no words. When I went to pick him up from school a boy in his class said, “Hello Liam’s Mama, how are you today?” I silently cried on the way home…it’s hard not to automatically think of the worst. We currently have a speech therapist who like yours is incredibly confident and encouraging. She too is helping us with ways to motivate him into finishing phrases or songs that he knows. His favorite is 5 Little Monkeys and he knows the motions and shakes his little finger and everything so we know he’s understanding. We did have his ears checked and he did have some fluid so we had tubes put in…people told me that in no time he will be speaking…here we are waiting 3.5 months later and still nothing.
    However, I want to tell you that your post has made me feel far more hopeful than I’ve felt in a long time. A lot parents have told me about their nephews or neighbors kid who didn’t speak until much later but your blog has resonated so much. I am sending you copious amounts of thanks!

    • Kim
      Kim February 4, 2015 at 3:56 pm #

      I’m so happy to hear that you found this helpful Jorye! Our situations sound identical. Same thing with the tubes–we read so many magical stories online about kids who were speaking within days or weeks after surgery. Not so with us either. Honestly, the fact that your son is being that interactive with the 5 Little Monkeys song should be hugely encouraging to you. Try to focus on what you love most about him and just let yourself enjoy him while he’s this age! 🙂 I promise you he WILL talk!

  10. JillianE February 3, 2015 at 3:56 am #

    I truly enjoy your wonderful suggestions for encouraging speech!

    I do wish to mention that quite often, that nagging voice is exceptionally accurate. My 4 year old has Autism,so for our family, that release did not come. You know, the big sigh when the all clear for Neurotypical becomes abundantly clear?

    The absolute most frustrating thing for me, turned out to be parents and assorted others who in an attempt to console my worries and be encouraging, offered up cliche phrases about Einstein not speaking until much later (which is not comforting since he clearly had Autistic tendencies) or some anecdotes regarding their own children. It put me in a place of delay, where I honestly waited a year longer than I should have. A year of Early Intervention completely out the window. I this cannot over emphasize the importance of pursuing that inner voice of intuition.
    So cautiously now, while I hear moms chatter and inquire, and sometimes unfortunately fret with those phishing questions, my response is always to advise they pursue it, if nothing else than to put their mind at rest.

    • Kim
      Kim February 4, 2015 at 4:04 pm #

      I’m so sorry you didn’t get your release, Jillian. Excellent point–yes, there is a legitimate reason pediatricians are concerned about this. My little brother is autistic so I understand what that world’s like too. Our audiologist was wise enough to warn us about that Einstein thing before we heard it elsewhere–but, as you know, we concerned parents will latch onto any hope we can find.

      I totally agree that it’s always worth pursuing intervention–like I said, in our case, it was more so that I felt like I was helping/doing everything I could. I still don’t regret it.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective!

    • Katie January 8, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

      Everything you wrote was exactly what I was thinking while reading.

  11. Casey February 3, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    This post makes my “speech therapist heart” so happy! Great tips for facilitating language! Check those ears, create many opportunities for speaking, keep it routine and predictable (predictable books, daily routines, ready set go, songs with finger plays), leave off the last word in the sequence and wait for a response, withhold desired items to facilitate requesting and be sure not to anticipate their every need without giving them the opportunity to request.

    • Kim
      Kim February 4, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

      Phew, I’m glad you approve! It’s been awhile now, so I was crossing my fingers that I was remembering/representing everything accurately!!

  12. Kellyn February 5, 2015 at 11:25 am #

    This article was almost like reading my sons life story. He started speech therapy right after he turned 2, and still has services while going to preschool. He is still a bit behind, but getting there. I love hearing his little voice, when just a year ago he would only say maybe 10 words on a good day. He didn’t babble, didn’t have any imaginary play or even interact with any kids that didn’t involve tears. Now…dude is non-stop. He has conversatiosn with his cars, sings songs (not in a group…not there yet, but after the group is done) and even asks the best questions. I am forever thankful for his ST, she changed his/our lives 🙂

  13. Suzanne February 8, 2015 at 10:49 pm #

    I never knew how bad my son’s speech was until he had ear tubes at 21 Mon. Within days his vocabulary increased and his words were clearer.

  14. Cindy February 9, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    As the mom of two deaf girls’, I definitely think that having their hearing checked should be proposed as more of a necessity if a child isn’t talking at two. In fact, if a child isn’t talking/jargoning by one, I’d definitely say to have their hearing checked! It’s all about early intervention for some kids and the diffetence the first three years make in the rest of a child’s life.

  15. Mary February 9, 2015 at 10:45 am #

    I am a speech-language pathologist and I just want to say that while I really love this article, I encourage families with young children who have not met some important milestones to do these tips AND seek an evaluation from speech, occupational, or physical therapists (as appropriate to the concern). An evaluation and even therapy (if recommended) can’t hurt and can get you started in very important Early Intervention if there IS a bigger concern (like Autism Spectrum Disorders). I just get nervous when I read some articles that send the “don’t worry” message too much. We have these milestone guidelines to help us identify when therapy may be needed and if started early, delays can be remediate much sooner. I was thankful to read that you did in fact use a speech therapist and I’m happy you found her helpful. If your son had been diagnosed with something more serious, her intervention would have been critical.

  16. Elissa March 23, 2015 at 8:48 pm #

    My husband, who is now a gregarious Ph.D. who reads and writes multiple languages, was over two years old before he started talking. You just never know. =)

  17. Kristin March 24, 2015 at 8:26 am #

    Hugs to you. I have 3 kiddos myself all were late talkers, 2 1/2 before making any real sounds/words. I partially attributed it to being a stay at home momma with them 24/7 so we had our own communication in ways, but have no fear…….they all began talking and now I am lucky to get a word in edgewise with all the chatter between the 2, 4 and 6 year old. Thank you for sharing your personal story to help others.

  18. Ashley May 24, 2015 at 8:25 am #

    Thank you for posting this. It’s remarkable how your words came at the perfect time for me. You’re a bit of a blessing for me right now, reading this. We’re going through a similar situation with my son who is 3 1/2. He was a bit slow to talk and when he did, not much was understandable. When we’re around other people, it’s worse and he won’t speak. I felt like I had to convince people that he does actually speak because parents are so easy to pass judgement and get a funny look like you KNOW the word autism is running through their head. I think we all want our kids to excel in everything they do. My faith started to lack as well, when we had an ER pediatrician pull me out of a room for a visit and tell me how concerned she was with his speech. His doctors had previously mentioned go holding his speech through a program, but this doctor pulled me out on the spot, never meeting my child before and told me he was a delayed child and we needed to check on this quickly. For some reason, my heart shattered. I tried to be patient with him, knowing how extremely shy this boy was, how reserved and private he was with people he knew. So my faith fell when she did that. We had set up a speech appointment, went, and to my amazement, opened up to this young lady in such an amazing way I cried. There was NOTHING wrong with him. His language was above his level, his articulation needed work, but that’s because he’s not around children everyday. Like I had tried to convince myself, he was fine, just shy. He spoke when he wanted and he definitely wasn’t going to if he didn’t. He shy, stubborn, independent kid. Partially like his mama. So thank you Kim for posting this, they’re not identical stories, but it’s refreshing to know that I’m not the only mom experiencing these feelings.

  19. Amanda May 25, 2015 at 6:29 am #

    I can relate. My son (my second) was 26 months and at every well check I kept telling the pediatrician- he’s not talking, not babbling, only laughs or cries. As a pediatric nurse and seeing kids everyday, I knew his behavior was not just him being a quiet, passive child. He was frustrated due to being unable to communicate. I independently took him to a private speech therapist- they assured me that they would get the order- since I couldn’t convince the Dr that my son had a problem. He was diagnosed with a severe speech delay (6-9 month level). After 2 months, he was signing and she was teaching him simple words/commands, the tantrums dropped in half (this child spent a majority of the day crying and screaming), by six months he had developed 50-75 words, and by a year when he “graduated” from speech tx he was speaking 200-250 words! He continued to have a little problem with articulation of many letters until he was about 6-7 years old, but once the boy started talking up a storm he became a much happier child.

    My advice- if your gut tells you something isn’t right and your pediatrician isn’t listening, I’d try to find someone who will listen.

  20. Jen October 25, 2015 at 7:40 am #

    When my then 2 yr old didn’t talk we went though the same things. However my pediatrician thought our son was fine but “didn’t want to get burned” and reluctantly advised speech therapy. Our speech therapist at the time was not encouraging. But we kept trying. I tried to ignore the autism, autism, autism screaming in my head. But if I did ignore it, he would not have received his early intervention. He was diagnosed with autism at 3.5. He started talking a little before his 4th bday. He is now a chatterbox 8 yr old who still struggles but without early intervention would be no where near where he is.

    My point being…I’m so happy your situation ended up well. But do not ignore that nagging feeling. Not every situation turns out to “not be autism.” I would have given anything for just hearing loss at the time. But I now look back and am thankful he was diagnosed because it opened doors to get his the right help and therapies he needed.

  21. Vail October 25, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    my daughter had speech delays and had speech therapy. She was diagnosed at 8 with high functioning Autism and Auditory Processing issues. If your child mis hears or mis pronouces a lot, get them checked for Auditory Processing Disorder.

  22. Beverly January 12, 2016 at 10:29 am #

    Great article with great tips. Early intervention is the key as research has shown. One never knows going in whether it’s their personality or a true delay. Getting therapy is not a bad thing regardless of either. My daughter was diagnosed with delays and received early intervention starting at 2 years of age, she later was diagnosed with autism. She now is 20 and talks a mile a minute, yes she still has autism, but I attribute her huge gains and current successes to the wonderful therapist who got her started.

  23. Kim Rife December 7, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

    Hi Kim, I’m Kim also with a 2 yrs old son Mason. Your article is giving me some hope. My son Mason only says about 10 words. I have an older son JOHN who is 5 and talks like an adult. About six months ago we were encouraged by her pediatrician to seek early intervention. Early intervention was denied stating that he was so active in trying to keep up with his older brother, that he was not interested in talking. So here we are six months later and I have not seen much improvement. Early intervention is coming back tomorrow to evaluate Mason and hopefully we can get him started on a program. I am sure by the time he is three he’ll be a chatterbox, but mothers should never doubt their intuition and seek every opportunity they can for their child.

  24. Tiffany August 8, 2017 at 8:22 pm #

    This is so reassuring. I’m sure you don’t think so, but my son was born 8 weeks premature and we spent 19 days in the NICU. He was hitting all his milestones until about 1 according to the pedi questionnaire that you complete at visits. I began to work harder with him, but he was still behind. At his 2 year appointment his pedi said she can’t rule out austism and that he failed in all milestones. This was so heartbreaking to hear from someone that you trust with your child’s most vulnerable moments. I was so upset and cried and stressed for weeks about her comments. We want through the ECI evaluation where he passed everything. Our Pedi then called us back in because she felt that he still needed therapy services. We proceeded with the ear tube surgery and placed him in an awesome daycare rather than with a sitter and he is done phenomenal since February. He still isn’t where he needs to be, but it is improvement. It totally get the feeling of failure when my kid is not doing what other kids his age or younger are doing. This is a feeling that is hard to shake and I let it steal my joy sometimes. Thank you for posting this!

  25. Lauren August 11, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

    My friend sent me this article and I cried reading it. So much comfort reading what is exactly happening with our two year old. He just had tubes and adenoids out a week ago. Thank you for saying what has been on my mind. Also I could not agree more with the hearing assessment, he has failed twice and we go back in six weeks to see if he tubes improved things. We also do weekly speech therapy, sign language, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve blamed myself wondering if I did something during pregnancy or didn’t give him as much attention because he is our second child. This quote especially especially spoke to me “One thing I’ve learned is to to recognize when a behavior is more a reflection of my son’s personality than his development or my parenting.” Thank you again.

  26. April August 13, 2017 at 9:20 pm #

    I see by the majority of comments that I’m a bit late to this article 😂 but I do want to thank you for writing it. I’m going through a similar experience with my fourth child; he is not where he should be speech-wise, and it’s stressful.

  27. Madison August 15, 2017 at 1:21 pm #

    I understand that as moms we do not want to believe that something is wrong with our children, but speech delay is a sign that the nervous system and brain are not working properly.

    I am a pediatric chiropractor in Georgia and we see a similar pattern in sensory/adhd/spectrum/anxiety kids. It starts with a stressful pregnancy then birth intervention and early warning signs are colic and severe reflux in infants. Next it turns into developmental delays and/or chronic ear infections. As they start to become 2,3,4,5 years old the anxiety/sensory/spectrum issues start to show up.

    Our nervous systems develop the most in the first 2 years of life than the rest of our lives combined. So the more stress (chemical, physical, emotional) our children encounter at a young, developing age the more the nervous system get hardwired into sympathetic (fight or flight, protective/surivival) mode. When the nervous system is in a dominant protective/survival state, there is little time for rest, development, and growth.

    There are natural options out there that your pediatrician wont tell you about or does not know about. It is not their fault as they just lack the education in that area.

    Any moms reading this please visit https://thenationalwellnessfoundation.org/ and watch the video at the top of the page.

    I hope moms read this with an open mind. I am not trying to mom shame, only to raise awareness and educate people on these things. I understand that no mom wants to think something is wrong with their child and sometimes we can justify why they are behind or that they will catch up, but it is a warning sign that things are not right with their brain and nervous system.

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