Why Isn't My 20-Month-Old Talking Yet?

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Children develop at their own pace, so it can be confusing and sometimes worrying when your child’s language skills appear to fall below other toddlers. If your 20-month-old toddler isn't using more than a few words, there may be an underlying issue, such as a hearing problem or other developmental delay.

There is a possibility that these delays are temporary. If your child seems to hear, understand, and follow instructions despite not speaking much, and there are no other signs of delayed development, they may just be on their own timeline. In fact, one out of five children learns to talk and use a larger range of words later than other children their age.

Typical Language Development

A child’s ability to communicate typically grows tremendously between ages 1 and 2 years. During this time, their vocabulary expands to up to 100 words, and toddlers go from simple words (“mama,” “dada,” and “bye-bye”) to saying two-word sentences and questions, like “What’s that?” and “More juice!”

At around 20 months, your child will likely: 

  • Ask short questions, like “Where kitty?” or “Go bye-bye?” 
  • Follow simple commands
  • Name a few common objects
  • Point to a few body parts when asked
  • Put two words together, like “more cookie” or “mommy book”
  • Say more words every month, learning a new word or two each week
  • Use many different consonant sounds at the beginning of words

Possible Causes

It is entirely possible that your child is just taking their time when it comes to talking. However, if they are still not on their way to meeting these benchmarks, one of these reasons may be why.

Delayed Speech or Language Development

Children with older siblings and children of parents who practice attachment parenting may speak later. Sometimes an older sibling does all the talking for a younger one. Additionally, a parent who knows a child’s cues often meets the child's needs before there is any verbal notification from the child.

In either case, however, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those children are still communicating and learning and, as they get older, you’d never know they spoke less or later.

Hearing Impairment

Determining if your child is hearing as well as they should be at this age can be difficult to do on your own. In fact, parents typically aren't even aware their child has a hearing impairment until they notice delayed speech.

If you are concerned, and especially if your child has had recurrent ear infections or has a family history of hearing loss, it's a good idea to have a child's hearing tested to rule out any problems that can affect how their speech develops.

Oral Issues

If your child hears perfectly fine but still has trouble actually forming words, it may be due to an issue with their mouth or tongue. Oral impairments include problems with the tongue or palate (roof of the mouth), such as a tongue-tie (a short frenulum, the fold beneath the tongue) or cleft palate.

An oral-motor problem occurs when the areas of the brain responsible for speech has difficulty coordinating the lips, tongue, and jaw to produce speech sounds.

Children with oral-motor problems may also have feeding difficulties. If an oral-motor problem or other oral impairments are suspected, your pediatrician may refer your child for an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist.

How to Support Speech Development

If what your child says (expressive language) is the only problem you note, there are things you can do to encourage their speech development now and when they are older.

Experts advise keeping a running conversation with your child throughout the day. Narrate what you and your child are doing by using a variety of words, and listen and respond to the sounds your child makes.

Other helpful suggestions for improving your toddler's speech include:

  • Making animal sounds and connecting them to animal names
  • Playing games such as pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo
  • Reading books to your child every day
  • Singing songs together

Encourage your child to talk by asking open-ended questions. For example, rather than asking, "Do you want a drink?" ask, "Would you like a glass of milk or a glass of water?" Be sure to wait for the answer and reinforce successful communication: "Thank you for telling me what you want. I will get you a glass of milk." 

Once you start offering choices, you may see more than just language development taking place. Parents often see a reduction in behaviors like saying "no" and temper tantrums with this approach.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association provides useful references on what your child should be able to do at 1 to 2 years old and 2 to 3 years old, which can be helpful in gauging your child's progress.

A Word From Verywell

If your child is turning 3 years old and you've been working with them in the ways mentioned, but they still haven't added new words or started putting words together, speak with your pediatrician or seek the advice of a professional speech-language pathologist (if you haven't already).

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.

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