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

Mother and Toddler

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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. But, if she seems to hear, understand, and follow instructions despite not speaking much, and there are no other signs of delayed development, she may just be on her 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. These are often temporary delays.

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: 

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

Possible Issues

While it is entirely possible that your child may just be taking his time when it comes to talking if she is not on her way to meeting these benchmarks, one of these reasons may be why.

Language Development Delay

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. 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 Loss

Determining if your child is hearing as well as she should be at this age can be difficult to do on your own. In fact, many parents aren't aware of any hearing issues in their child 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 her speech develops.

Oral Issues

Your child hears perfectly fine and may even want to speak, but may be having trouble actually forming words due to an issue with his tongue or mouth.

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.

Improving a Toddler's Speech Development

If what your child says (expressive language) is the only problem you note, there are things you can do to help improve her speech development now and when she's 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:

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

To help get your child to use more words, one recommendation is to ask open-ended questions instead of ones that simply require a yes or no answer. For example, rather than asking, "Do you want milk or water?" ask, "Would you like a glass of milk or 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 her in the ways mentioned but she still hasn'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).

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