When Your Child's Speech Delay Is a Red Flag

Portrait of a small boy

Thanasis Zovoilis / Moment / Getty Images

There is a wide range of normal language development in toddlers and two-year-olds. Children hit milestones at different times, and many factors can influence how much or how clearly a child speaks.

For instance, children who live in a bilingual home may take a little longer to become fluent in either language (but in the long run may have significantly better verbal skills than their peers). Toddlers in a family with older siblings sometimes speak later because brothers and sisters "talk for them." Research also shows that girls speak earlier than boys.

Sometimes, though, speaking late or speech that is unclear can signal a developmental delay or a physical problem. In those cases, your child may benefit from speech therapy. The first step is to determine whether your child's speech is really off target for his age. Check with your child's pediatrician anytime you have a question or concern.

Speech Milestones

Around the first birthday, baby babble starts to change. As little ones try harder to imitate the sounds around them, the noises they make start to take the shape of actual words. In subsequent months, they begin to string words together into toddler sentences.

After the second birthday, there is usually an explosion in vocabulary and the use of more complex sentences. Use this list of milestones and signs of possible delay when considering whether your little one's speech is progressing normally.

12 to 18 Months

At this age, toddlers have a wide range of speech sounds. You’ll probably be able to recognize at least one or two common words, such as "baba" (bottle) or "mama." Nouns that are, in a child's view, essential to daily life are usually the first words that they master.

Aside from those key words, your child’s speech at 12 months will mostly be limited to babbling sounds. Over the following six months, though, you should start to see your child begin to develop more advanced communication, such as:

  • Trying to copy your words
  • Imitating the back and forth of real conversation
  • Inflecting speech to ask a question (saying "Ju?" when requesting juice) or make a demand (shouting "Ju!" when insisting on juice)
  • Spontaneously using words, rather than just responding to sounds you make
  • Using a combination of gestures and vocalized sounds to communicate

While paying attention to the words or sounds your child is making is important, also consider whether or not your toddler can follow simple directions that involve one step (for example, "pick up the block").

18 to 24 Months

There continues to be a wide range of normal in verbal skills during this developmental period. Your child’s personality and circumstances can play a role in how many words you hear and how often. On average, though, by the time your child reaches age two, you can expect the following milestones:

  • Increasingly adding words to their vocabulary
  • Forming two-word phrases—although they won’t be grammatically correct (“no go,” “book read”)
  • Using words to identify pictures in a book or surroundings
  • Naming body parts and animals and sometimes making animal sounds (“moo” for cow)

It's still important to notice how well your child is able to comprehend what you say. Do they respond to you when you ask questions? Can they follow simple two-step commands by age two?

2 to 3 Years

Between two and three years old is usually when parents see an explosion in children's speech and verbal skills. It's often said that a child's vocabulary grows to 200 or more words during this time. Some of the milestones to look for this year include:

  • Saying more words and picking up new words regularly
  • Combining three or more words into sentences (which may still be grammatically awkward)
  • Beginning to identify colors, shapes, and concepts, such as more or less and big versus little
  • Singing nursery rhymes and songs or repeating stories from books you've read often together
  • Beginning to express feelings with words ("I hungry," "Sam sad")

The total number of words your child learns during this time is less important than a consistent increase in the number of words they start to use week by week.

At this age, it's still common for people outside your immediate family or caregiver to be unable to understand your child as well as you can. In the coming year, your child’s speech should become clearer and clearer. If you are concerned about your child's speech, talk to your pediatrician about causes of speech delays and ways you can support language development at home.

Was this page helpful?
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.
  1. Barbu S, Nardy A, Chevrot JP, et al. Sex differences in language across early childhood: Family socioeconomic status does not impact boys and girls equally. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1874. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01874

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important milestones: Your child by one year. Updated June 9, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important milestones: Your child by eighteen months. Updated June 9, 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important milestones: Your child by two years. Updated December 9, 2019.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Concerned about your child’s development?. Updated February 20, 2020.

Additional Reading