Help your toddler talk

Speech and language therapist Laura Seeley looks at common speech problems, and how to get your child talking

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Learning to talk is one of the biggest milestones for your toddler, so it can be a major worry for you when problems occur.

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Your child’s brain is hot-wired to learn to talk – it’s a basic human instinct. But there are lots of ways you can help develop her skills. Your toddler will learn more from talking and playing with you than from any TV programme – don’t underestimate what a great teacher you are!

One of the best is by simply playing with her, from peek-a-boo and raspberry-blowing as a baby, to imaginative role play when she’s older.

Comment on everyday activities – washing up, shopping and trips to the park are all language-rich topics.

Reading a story is great, but for very young toddler it might be too much – talking about the pictures is just as good.

Nursery rhymes are fun, and action songs such as Head, shoulders, knees and toes reinforce vocabulary.

Golden rules for getting your toddler talking

These are the key ways you can help your child learn to talk and communicate well:

  1. Turn-taking – wait for a response. A giggle, a look or a word all count
  2. Allow your child to lead – if she wants to use a book as a hat, see where it leads you
  3. Language load – avoid language that’s too complex for your child’s stage
  4. Keep good eye contact – get down to her level whenever you can when talking to her
  5. Imitate – repeat back what your child says, or what she would say if she could
  6. Not real words? Proto-words such as ‘woof’ (dog) are valid. Try adding the real word to the sound, e.g. moo-cow, at first
  7. Give encouragement and praise for attempts at talking – communication should be rewarding for everyone!

PROBLEM: Not talking yet

“When Oliver was nearly 3, he seemed to understand, but used little meaningful language,” says Sarah, 34, mum to Emily, 8, and Oliver, 3. “He saw a speech therapist and went to group sessions. After about eight weeks he was naming things more consistently and putting two words together. He still needs therapy, but he’s come a long way.”

It’s always a cause for concern if your child’s talking seems behind his peers, but toddlers develop at different rates in all areas, from potty training to riding a bike. Minor speech problems often resolve themselves when your child starts school.

How to encourage your toddler to talk:

  • Turn off the TV or radio when you’re playing together
  • Talk slowly and clearly at her eye level
  • Use simple sentences, emphasising key words
  • Use gestures and words to aid understanding
  • Ask questions that invite more than one-word answers, such as, “What’s the best bit about having a bath?” rather than “Do you like having a bath?”
  • Give her time to respond – she may need more time to complete her thought process

PROBLEM: Speaking unclearly

“Lauren’s speech made it hard to understand her,” says Sarah, 40, mum to Amelia, 8, and Lauren, now 6. “After a speech disorder was diagnosed, she had specialist therapy. Her speech improved, with a positive effect on her confidence.”

There are lots of reasons why children might have difficulty making themselves understood:

  • Normal speech immaturities
  • Disorders such as dyspraxia
  • Hearing loss, including glue ear
  • Neurological impairment such as cerebral palsy

As toddlers, most children make mild errors – a common mistake is to make “k” sound like “t”, so “cat” becomes “tat”. Children tend to grow out of this by age 5, although a lisp (when “s” sounds like “th”) may last longer. If other people find your child hard to understand, it might be worth considering speech therapy.

What to do if your toddler speaks unclearly:

  • Speak slowly and clearly – let her see how you form the sounds
  • Repeat key words correctly, so if she says, “I ent ba”, you can say, “You want the ball”
  • Don’t ask her to correct a word unless you’re sure she can say all the sounds
  • Play games such as ‘I Spy’ (focusing on letter sounds) and sing nursery rhymes together

PROBLEM: Stammering

“Jake started stammering for no apparent reason when he was 3,” says Mischa, 26, mum to Jake, 3. “Luckily he was offered Lidcombe therapy, which reinforces the behaviour you want through praise and practice. Jake is now smooth most of the time, and we know what to do if he has an off day.”

Stammering usually begins between the ages of 2 and 5 years, and while many children simply grow out of it, others stammer into adulthood. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing who’ll have persistent problems, but there are many successful interventions.

What to do if your toddler stammers:

  • Contact the British Stammering Association and the Michael Palin Centre
  • Acknowledge her frustration
  • Spend five minutes a day giving her your complete attention
  • Praise her for all the things she does well
  • Treat her just the same as a non-stammering child in terms of her general behaviour

PROBLEM: Non-talking and selective mutism

“Rosie found the transition to nursery extremely difficult,” says Melanie, 30, mum to Rosie, 3. “After about six months, the nursery told me Rosie hadn’t said a word since she started there. I discussed it with a private speech and language therapist and first heard of ‘selective mutism’. The therapist was very reassuring, and Rosie’s now making good progress.”

Persistent non-talking may indicate selective mutism. Your child may seem obstinate and willful, but talking is extremely stressful to her and pressure increases her anxiety. Children may talk freely at home, but if yours talks happily in one context and is persistently silent (or very reluctant) in another, speak to a speech therapist or psychologist.

What to do if your child has stopped speaking:

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  • Contact national group SMIRA for help and advice
  • Let your child know that talking can be really difficult at times and reassure her that it won’t be so for ever
  • Remove all pressure to talk when your child finds it difficult – don’t insist that she says hello to unfamiliar adults

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