HELP! How can I get my toddler to communicate?

By: Jorden Beckman, MS CCC-SLP

There may be a variety of reasons why your child is not yet talking, but one reason may be that you already anticipate their wants and needs before they have to communicate with you. It is important to let your child take the lead to promote communication with you and to help develop those words – remember to “OWL” (Observe what he/she is interested in – Wait to see what he/she will do – Listen to what he/she is trying to tell you). Waiting is so HARD, try counting to 10 in your head to help you.
If your child is thirsty she may want some milk and walk to the fridge and stand there. Instead of getting it out for her, WAIT and LISTEN for her to communicate. She may look at you, point to the fridge, take you to the fridge, or vocalize (i.e., grunt, babble). You can then model appropriate vocabulary “milk, you want milk, milk” and get the milk for her.
You may be playing blocks with your child, but she does not seem interested anymore. Ask her “What do you want to play?” OBSERVE her actions (she may go get a different toy or she may just look at you). If nothing happens, you can choose another activity or two and present them to her (bubbles, cars, etc.) WAIT and LISTEN (she may reach for her preferred activity and vocalize “da” or babble “bababa”). Then you can model the name of the activity she chose and repeat repeat repeat (“bubbles, you want bubbles, bubbles, blow bubbles, etc.”).

Other ideas to get your child communicating – we call these “communication temptations”:

  • Put a motivating toy or object where they can see it, but not reach it (cars, ball popper, bubbles, sippy cup, snack cup)
  • Only give your child 1 or 2 of something and wait to see what they do next – “withholding” (goldfish, fruit snacks, puzzle pieces, stickers, sip of juice)
  • Give your child an activity she needs your assistance with (blowing bubbles, something with an on/off switch, something fun in a container they cannot open)
  • Give two choices of something they like (cars or trains, trampoline or swing, milk or juice, crackers or fruit snacks)
  • Play repetitive games, then immediately stop and wait (Tickle, chase/tag, swing)
  • Use fun sounds and words in play (environmental noises such as transportation and animal sounds)
  • After you OWL using one of these strategies – it is important to provide a model of what you expect from your child. Often times, if they are not using words, we teach sign language to show there is a cause and effect in communication (i.e., when you sign – you get what you want)

  • You gave your child 2 fruit snacks and now she pointed at the bag because she wants more. You can show her how to sign “more” by doing it yourself and saying “more.”
  • After you model it, WAIT and see if your child will do it herself. If not, you can help her sign, you say “more,” and then give her one or two more fruit snacks. Continue this process until she is no longer interested in the snack. Then model “all done”
  • WAIT and see if your child will do it herself. If not, you can help her sign, you say “all done”
  • Once your child can sign “more” independently, you can give her a cue on her lips to show her you also want her to use words/sound. In my therapy sessions, I model by placing my thumb over both my lips for “mmmmmmm” and then removing my thumb from my lips, finish the word. Then I give the child the same cue to show the expectation of a sound/word
  • This works across a variety of different activities and use of signs – help, please, all done, open, close, etc. For more information on how to make these signs visit:
    Manolson, H. A., & Hanen Centre. (1992). It takes two to talk. Toronto: Hanen Centre/
    Sussman, Fern (1992). More than words. Toronto: Hanen Centre.