7 Ways to Get Your Toddler to Communicate



It means I want the child to gesture, sign or try to say a sound or word OR, I want her to try to do these things in conjunction with pointing or pulling you.

Here’s what I would recommend -

1. Start with what your toddler can do.

  • Are there any sounds, gestures or signs that she can do? If so, start there and try to increase the frequency of those sounds, gestures, and signs. You can do this by imitating her sounds, gestures, or signs. Then, use those sounds, gestures, and signs and apply them in different contexts. For instance, if your child, let’s call her Annie, can wag her finger for the finger play – “5 Little Monkeys”, but she doesn’t use it in any other instances, it’s your job to have her wag her finger during other appropriate times. For instance, she could wag her finger at the family dog when he chews her toy (Oh wait, does that only happen in my household?)

    • Think - What gesture(s) do/does your child and how can you build on it? Start there. My newest book, My Toddler’s First Words can assist you in systematically thinking about what your toddler can do independently.

2.   Get her making some noise!

  • Was Annie a loud baby? Did she babble or engage in any vocal play? These are questions I often ask my parents. Many children who are late to talk are described as being quiet babies who may not have babbled or played with their voices. If your toddler is still quiet and only communicates via pulling, pointing, screaming or crying it's imperative that we get them making some noise. If this is the case, I would also highly recommend seeking an evaluation by a certified and licensed speech language pathologist.

  • When I work with children who are not yet talking I try to see if they'll imitate some sounds. I pretend to have a cold and dramatically cough and sneeze. Then, I turn this into a game. I'll say, "Oh I need a tissue, I'm going to…achoo!” (pretend to sneeze by saying achoo). "Ooh, I have a tickle in my throat...”cough, cough." Toddlers usually think this is hilarious and often want to act out this play routine too. I also try to encourage animal sounds like a dog growling , barking or panting, a cow mooing, or a cat meowing. Really anything goes! The point is you want to see if your child can have fun with his or her voice and volitionally make any sounds. When this occurs, your child can then make these noises to initiate an exchange. For instance, my daughter thinks it's funny to squeeze her nose, point to you and say "stinky" (grandma taught her that one). When she does this it's her way of trying to get you to laugh because she thinks she so funny. Most toddlers want to laugh and want to make YOU laugh.

    • Think - What are some funny sounds I can make that will promote imitation and laughter?

3. When Annie does attempt a sound or gesture – react to it immediately.

  • When a child utters a new sound or word it catches us off guard. This causes a flurry of internal thoughts that looks something like this:

  1. First possible thought: “Wait a second, did she just say cookie? She was pointing to the cookie jar and it sounded like cookie. Did she really say cookie? Honey, I think Annie just said cookie.” While we’re pondering this, even if it’s just for a few seconds, we haven’t yet given the cookie to the child. We’re just standing there; probably secretly hoping that the child will say it again crystal clear.

  2. Second possible thought: “Well, if she did say cookie, I’m going to see if she can say it again. Sweetie, what did you just say? Can you say that again for mommy.” We want the child to say it again to justify to ourselves that he or she just said that word and can say it again. When a child can repeat the word (especially on command) we get a warm fuzzy feeling. We like warm fuzzy feelings.

  3. Third possible thought: “Hmmm….it sounded a little like cookie, but not really. Let’s see if she can say it any better. Sweetie, look at mommy’s mouth, say “c—c---cookie”.

  • These flurries of thoughts are natural and there’s no stopping them. However, it doesn’t mean that we have to delay responding to the child’s verbal request. If I’m losing any of you here, please try to stay with me. My point is, if your child just attempted a new word, gesture or sound, enjoy the moment (give your child a big smile), repeat it (“Cookie”) and then give him the desired item or somehow acknowledge his attempt (“Here’s the cookie, sweetie”.).Then, while the child is enjoying the cookie, talk about the cookie. By responding to your child in a natural and relaxed way, your child will be likely to repeat the word, sound, or gesture because he sees that communicating is a nice experience. (Please note – these examples and advice pertain to when the child begins to communicate. This advice does not necessarily pertain to articulation delays or disorders or oral motor disorders. Skillful repetition is very important when it comes to improving a child’s intelligibility. That’s a topic for another post.)

4. Encourage face to face interaction

A Soldier is Welcomed to Kenya by a Young Child

A Soldier is Welcomed to Kenya by a Young Child

Photo Credit: Defence Images

  • Get BELOW your toddler’s eye level. When you’re little, it’s hard to have a conversation with someone who’s towering over you and causing you to strain your neck. Squat down, sit on the floor, kneel, etc when talking to your toddler. When you’re below eye level you also have a better chance of picking up on subtle cues or facial expressions. Seems like common sense, right? It is!! But, honestly think about it. In those moments when you’re in the kitchen and your little one is frantically pointing and crying because he wants to eat something, are you kneeling down and communicating with him below eye level? Or, are you standing, scratching your head, thinking, when is bedtime? See the picture above? The child still has to look up, so I would even get down lower than that! Furthermore, according to Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, best-selling author of The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline, getting below a child's eye level soothes his or her nervous system. I recommend getting below eye level when your toddler becomes upset or emotional.

  • Hold desired objects close to your face. I like to place the desired object by my cheek area, somewhere between my mouth and eyes. This way the child has the option of looking at my mouth or eyes. With toddlers, I never force eye contact. If the child looks at your mouth, he may try to imitate your mouth’s movements (great for targeting those visual sounds like, “ooo:, “eee”, “mmmm”, “pa” and “ba”. If he looks at your eyes, that’s wonderful too.

5. Make her work for it….for just a bit.

  • Don’t withhold desired items until she attempts to imitate you. That is just plain mean. Say the target sound, word, sign, or gesture a few times (I recommend 3 times) and then rightfully hand over the desired item. For example, Annie has pulled you into the kitchen and is pointing to Annie’s Bunny Graham Crackers (my daughter loves these). Don’t just instantly hand them to her. MAKE IT INTO A GAME. Act like saying the sound, doing the gesture, or performing the bunny dance is so incredibly fun, that she’ll just have to do it! Plus, she’ll be motivated to do it because she wants a bunny cracker! Encouragement is necessary because if we overly anticipate what the child wants and always readily give in to what they want because WE KNOW WHAT THEY WANT, they will never make the connection that they have to do something to get it!!

6. Teach them a sign, gesture, gross body movement or  just dance.

  • Back to the previous example. If Annie wants the bunny crackers, you can jump around like a bunny while saying bunny and or, you can sign for bunny while saying bunny. Here’s a youtube video that teaches the sign bunny:

  • Children who imitate gross body movements (jumping around like a bunny) or sign have a better chance of acquiring speech. Sara Bingham, the founder of WeeHands, a sign language program, has a phenomenal book, The Baby Signing Book: Includes 450 ASL Signs for Babies and Toddlers. Bingham’s book provides a wealth of information that explicitly teaches readers how to sign with their babies or toddlers and why it’s recommended. In one research study, she cites: “the speech areas of the brain develop later and more slowly than related motor areas of the brain, while motor control of the hands develop earlier than motor control needed for speech” (29). I also found Sara’s detailed, research driven explanation of how sign language develops very valuable. Just like spoken language has developmental phases so does sign language. Introduce signs or gestures that are going to be the most useful to help her communicate. And, make the interaction fun! You can do this by signing while reciting a favorite nursery rhyme or while reading his or her favorite board book!

7. Give Choices

  • Giving choices not only promotes language development, but also increases problem solving, independence, confidence and compliance. If you’ve read Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood: Practical Parenting From Birth to Six Years you know what I’m talking about. I’ve already written an entire post about how to give choices and have multiple examples throughout My Toddler Talks. So, next time your child is pointing or pulling you to the book shelf, present two options and have her choose by encouraging a sign, sound, word, gesture, facial expression or even a dance!

Lastly, check for understanding.

Does my child understand what I’m saying?

toddler scratching head

toddler scratching head

Photo Credit: SAN_DRINO

  • Toddlers understand words before they can say them. This concept shouldn’t be too shocking because this learning phenomenon is the same throughout our lifetime. We understand far more words we hear and read versus those we use during conversational speech or in our writing. In the book, Vocabulary at the Core: Teaching the Common Core Standards(a must read for any professional who works on vocabulary development), authors Amy Benjamin and John Crow state: “Knowing a word is a matter of degrees of depth: knowing the gist of a word is, quite often, all you need when you hear or read a word. As you become better acquainted with a word, you begin to know its nuances, connotations, etc. In other words, you must be in control of a lot of information about a word before you are able to useit properly.” They go on to state that, “acquiring productive control over words is normally a gradual process. Bits and pieces are added to your body of knowledge about a new word as you are exposed to it in a variety of contexts and situations.” When I read this, I was emphatically shaking my head, yes, yes, yes! This information also applies to toddlers! Therefore, it’s going to be easier to expect a toddler to start saying words that he understands! So, when you are modeling words and making her work of it…for just a bit, use words that you know or think she understands. For instance, she seems to understand the word bib because she runs to the kitchen and gets it. She seems to understand shoe because she looks down and touches them when I say the word. She seems to understand sit because she’ll sit down when asked. If this is the case, then bib, shoe, and sit could be words that you could try to encourage her to say.

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If you’re in need of some more tips, please see the following posts:

How to Ask Questions

How Pausing Improves Communication

How to Effectively Use Self-Talk and Parallel-Talk

Thanks for reading!