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Communicating Before Fluent Language – Dr. Debbie’s Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our two-year-old babbles nearly non-stop. I catch less than half of what she’s saying. My wife sometimes is able to translate what I’ve missed, but lots of things are unintelligible to her, too. Is there anything we can do to ease communication for our little one? We are expecting our second baby in a few months and worry that lack of communication will be a more serious challenge when a tinier sibling’s needs might have to take precedence. By the way, our lack of comprehension doesn’t seem to bother her as much as it bothers us.

What Did You Say?


Dear WDYS,

Not everything your toddler is saying is directed speech. The fact that your lack of comprehension doesn’t faze her is evidence that she is just “playing with” her burgeoning ability to produce vocal sounds that get you to interact with her.

Supporting Early Speech

The first intentional sound-making probably occurs around 2-4 months, at which time a baby enjoys making cooing sounds for you to imitate. She is in essence controlling both her voice and yours. At this stage, being so dependent on caregivers for everything including moving from one place to another, she doesn’t yet have a sense of self. You strengthen her skills in sound-making just by repeating her noises as long as she is interested in the game.

By 10-12 months, she masters the ability to produce at least one word that can be understood by a parent or other regular caregiver. It might be “baba” for her bottle, or “Mama” or “Dada” (sometimes used interchangeably for either parent), or the dog’s name. She enjoys that her articulation produces action beyond her body. She is starting to get the idea that she begins and ends within the space her body takes up. With a word, she gets her bottle to come to her. She can command her grown-up to appear. Whatever she can get the dog to do by saying its name (or by imitating its bark) is pure delight. In between these powerful utterances, she still has to rely on expressing her needs and wants in ways other than words. You support her growing ability to communicate by doing your best to respond appropriately to her faces, gestures, cries, and giggles.

Note, babies who are exposed to American Sign Language (or even just a few Baby Signs) often have first “signs” a couple of months before the first spoken words.

A Pause, Then a Burst

The task of learning to balance on two feet for walking usually takes up a lot of a new toddler’s  mental energy until a well-coordinated gait is mastered (roughly by 12-18 months). Once she is a competent walker, more and more meaningful sounds are being produced. Foods, favorite toys, favorite activities, and favorite people/pets are generally the most common first words. Soon, around 20-24 months, she can make her first two-word “sentence” which might combine a noun and a verb, such as, “Mommy bye-bye”. The best way to support this stage of language development is to restate her very short sentences with longer ones. In this case, “Yes, Mommy went to the grocery store. She’ll be back soon with bananas.” 

Steady Connection

The current babbling stage your daughter is in commonly occurs as a bridge between a limited number of actual words she can produce and her constant need to connect with her caregivers. She enjoys holding your attention in “conversation” regardless of whether you are actually on the same topic or any topic at all. One suggestion for keeping your connection going even after the sibling arrives is to add songs to your interactions. Songs keep you in unison even when a new baby threatens to come between you. “The Wheels on the Bus” can keep going round and round, with her hands in motion, while your hands are busy diapering the new baby.

Don’t let her babbling fool you! Toddlers are language sponges. Even though her articulation may not yet be clear, from about age two to three, you can expect your child to add a word a day to her spoken vocabulary. Respond to the gist of her babbling by grasping the context of what she’s saying. In pretend play, children often repeat the same scenario over and over. You can add vocabulary as you join her in play. For example, if she is pretending to sell you an ice-cream cone, name a few flavors so she can repeat back, “No Baniwa.” Or, “Here Chock-it.” Remember, she can only add new words if she hears them first. The number of words a toddler can understand is roughly five times the number she can articulate. So keep talking to her and soon your words will come back to you.

If you have any concern about your child’s language development, refer to this timeline for hearing and speech for the first five years by the Mayo Clinic

Enjoy your babbler. Parent-child communication is so much more than words.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

She will be presenting a workshop for parents and professional caregivers entitled: Effective Discipline Techniques for two- to five-year-olds, Tuesday, March 29, 7 pm – 9 pm on Zoom. Register in advance.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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