Warning Signs of a Toddler Language Development Delay

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

In the area of language development, timelines are helpful, but overall, it's important to consider whether or not your child is effective at communicating rather than focus on a set number of words in their vocabulary or a date on a calendar.

Questions to Ask

If you're experiencing difficulty understanding or communicating with your toddler and are starting to worry if there might be a problem, ask yourself the following questions.

If you answer No to any of these questions, speak with your child's health care provider or teacher, or contact an early intervention program for further testing and diagnosis.

Do They Try to Speak?

By 12 months of age, your toddler should be attempting to communicate verbally with you. Grunts and partial words (like ba-ba for the bottle) do count.

Do They Show Interest in Others?

When at home and other people enter or leave the room, your child should notice and react. Reactions could include smiling when seeing a familiar person, crying when you leave, or trying to follow you as you exit a room. Your toddler should be interested in what other people are doing, for instance, if someone is eating, reading a book, or playing with a toy nearby.

Do They Use New Words Regularly?

Once your toddler starts trying to use words, you should see steady progress in their language development. Once the words are in their vocabulary, they should stay there and there should be an increase in words from that point forward.

Be concerned if your child's vocabulary seems stagnant for more than a few months or if they used to have a word for something and that word has now vanished.

Do They React to Music?

Most toddlers show some sort of reaction to music. If your child is clapping their hands, swaying or attempting to dance, shaking their head, humming, or attempting to sing, then don't be concerned. If they don't do these things, there could be a problem.

Do They Mimic the Sounds Around Them?

While everyone's voice will have unique characteristics, your toddler's speech patterns should reflect what they hear around them. Their long a may be drawn out or show a bit of twang if you're from the South, for example, and that's perfectly normal. Their long a or any of their vowel sounds should not sound consistently off or inaccurate to your ears, though.

Do They Pronounce Consonants Correctly?

If your child's vowel sounds sound pretty normal to you but they have their own way of saying certain words that don't seem to improve over time, that can be grounds for concern. Examples of this include frequently leaving off the beginning or ending consonants or always replacing a t for a c sound.

Do They Know and Respond to Their Name?

When you say your child's name, they should turn their head toward you or look directly at you. Babies as young as 6 months can do this. Be concerned if it hasn't happened by your child's first birthday.

Do They Use More Words than Gestures?

Unless a primary caregiver communicates using signs, your child's sole method of communicating with you should not be with gestures. In addition, if you are using baby signs, then those signs should be recognizable and distinct versus simply pointing or waving. By about 2 years of age, your child should have transitioned into using more words than gestures.

Do Others Understand Them?

There's a certain level of understanding that parents have with their own kids that strangers just don't have. If you act as a translator for others some of the time, that's OK. If your child is 3 and people still ask you to translate all the time, then there's cause for concern.

Can They Follow Simple Verbal Commands?

Some parents find themselves doing everything for their child, not realizing that they're doing so because of a possible issue with language development. Step back a moment and assess whether your toddler is capable of following common verbal requests like "Bring me your shoe," or "Hand me your sippy cup."

Do They Put Words Together?

Around two years, your child should be putting together words in meaningful ways. They might say "Me hungry" when they want to eat or "Go out" when they want to go outside, for example. If they are not doing this by age two and a half, talk with your doctor; this may be cause for concern.

Are They Able to Imitate?

Be concerned if your child has never imitated sounds or gestures before. Some common, early imitations might include a cat meowing, a dog barking, a parent saying "uh oh" or waving "bye-bye" and clapping when you clap.

Have They Had Ear Infections?

If your child has had more than their fair share of ear infections or they have had ear infections that were late getting diagnosed, then they could have had issues with their hearing then or may still be having them now. An ear injury (to one or both ears) is also something to keep in mind when talking to your health care provider or anyone else who may be working with your child.

Other Factors

There are other factors related to language development that might explain some delays. Answering Yes to these questions may alleviate your worries. But it's still worth talking to your child's pediatrician or contacting your state's early intervention program if you have concerns.

Do They Have Older Siblings?

Sometimes an older child will frequently speak for their younger sibling and cause you to imagine that there is a delay when there isn't. But this can also mask a delay that is actually there. Regularly speak with your toddler one-on-one to make sure they're capable of communicating on their own.

Is Your Child a Twin or a Multiple?

Twins and multiples sometimes develop special ways of communicating with each other. They can also tend to develop speech and communication skills at a different rate than other children. Sometimes this is a concern and other times it is not. The best way to know the difference is to educate yourself about the speech development issues unique to multiples.

Are There Two or More Languages Spoken at Home or School?

If your child is regularly exposed to more than one language (sign language or spoken languages), then they may be slower to speak. This is not generally a sign of a true developmental delay.

Think of it as your child doing twice the amount of language processing, and you can see why it takes longer for communication to develop.

Raising multilingual children has many benefits, so don't avoid speaking more than one language just so your toddler will speak more or sooner.

Do They Stutter?

Most stuttering develops in children during the toddler years and it's a perfectly normal part of language development. Be concerned if it hasn't disappeared about 6 months after it starts, or if the stuttering is accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions.

Why Is My Very Active Toddler Not Talking?

A toddler may be active and their physical development may on track, but their speech is behind. Sometimes, this is because they find that they can communicate just fine with movements and gestures. However, if they don't try to speak or use verbal sounds to communicate, or they don't seem interested in interacting with others, it's worth looking further into. Always reach out to your pediatrician if you are concerned about your toddler's language.

A Word From Verywell

Language delays can be caused by many different factors (like hearing issues or muscle problems) or could be part of other conditions such as a learning disability or autism. In any case, prompt evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment are the keys to the best outcome for your toddler.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important Milestones: Your Child By One Year.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important Milestones: Your Child By Two Years.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Milestone Moments.

  4. National Institutes of Health. Ear Infections in Children.

  5. Thorpe K. Twin children's language development. Early Hum Dev. 2006;82(6):387-95. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2006.03.012

  6. National Institutes of Health. Stuttering.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.