Warning Signs of a Toddler Language Development Delay

Language 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 her vocabulary or a date on a calendar.

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. She 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 her language development. Once the words are in her 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 her head, humming, or attempting to sing, then don't be concerned. If she doesn'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 her 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, she should turn her 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, she 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 2.5 years old you should bring them to see a doctor as it 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 she's had more than her fair share of ear infections or she's had ear infections that were late getting diagnosed, then she could have had issues with her hearing then or she 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 questions related to language development that you might answer Yes to which may actually alleviate your worries or fears.

Do They Have Other Siblings?

Sometimes an older brother will frequently speak for his younger sister and cause you to imagine that there is a delay when there isn't. This can also mask a delay that is actually there. Regularly speak with your toddler privately to make sure they're capable of communicating on her 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 she 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.

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.

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Article 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.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important Milestones: Your Child By Two Years. Updated June 19, 2018.

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  4. National Institutes of Health. Ear Infections in Children. Updated May 12, 2017.

  5. Thorpe K. Twin children's language development. Early Hum Dev. 2006;82(6):387-95.

  6. National Institutes of Health. Stuttering. Updated March 6, 2017.