Talking to your toddler between 1 and 3 years old

Your child’s understanding and use of words and phrases will grow quickly between the ages of 1 and 3 years old. Children start to use new words once they really understand them.

Around the time your child is using between 20 and 50 words, they will start joining words together, for example, ‘bye daddy’ or ‘more milk’.

Their use of words will develop from names of objects and people to action words, such as, ‘jumping’, ‘sleeping’ and describing words like, ‘little’, ‘hot’, and ‘dirty’. Your child needs a range of different types of words to begin using phrases and simple sentences.

Children usually simplify the sounds in words, so their speech might not be clear. You are most likely tuned in to your child’s speech patterns and understand them best.

Boost your child’s developing speech and language using the ideas below.

Keep talking face to face

Position yourself at your child’s level, so your child can see your face clearly. This will help your child see your facial expressions and how your mouth makes the sounds.

Limit your child’s screen time

Research suggests that screen time at this early age can negatively affect your toddler’s speech and language development. Children learn language through experiencing it first hand in play and everyday routines, so make the most of these opportunities. If your child does watch TV, make sure you join them and use it as an opportunity for a conversation with your child.

Limit your screen time

Your toddler needs as much attention as you can give during these important years. Glancing at your phone could mean you miss your toddler trying to communicate with you. When you show interest in your child they’re more likely to engage with you in return. ‘Back and forth’ interactions like these are great opportunities to help your child develop.

Play with everyday objects

Your toddler will start role playing with everyday items. Model how to use objects and your child may imitate you, for example, hold a phone to their ear, brush their hair with a hairbrush, or pour from a teapot. Follow their lead by letting them choose what to play with and how. Name objects they are playing with and comment on what is happening using simple sentences. Share picture books

Point to familiar objects in picture books, or lift flaps with surprise. Name objects they are focused on and describe what is happening using simple language. Use describing words, action words and object words. For example: ‘It’s a big, brown dog’ or ‘He’s wagging his tail!’ or ‘The dog’s sleeping!’. Try to use an enthusiastic and animated tone, even if you have read the same book many times! Repetition really helps your child learn language.

Guessing games

Bring everyday items out of a pillowcase or tote bag using excited voice tones. Be sure to build the tension by asking your toddler what they think is going to appear, and then name it. This is a good way to use descriptive language, such as ‘It’s your blue ball! It’s very squishy.’ Make sure the objects are safe to touch and explore.

Enjoy time outside

Try describing what you are experiencing together when outdoors. For example: ‘Look at those big fluffy clouds,’ or ‘Touch this grass. It feels cool on your hands.’ Your local play park offers teachable moments for speech and language, as you can comment on what your toddler is doing. For example: ‘I see you sitting in the swing, you’re going so high!’ Also comment on your own actions, such as ‘Push, push,’ or ‘Up and down.’

Play with water

Your toddler will love the chance to play with water. Fill a washing-up bowl or bucket and then add toys, cups, wooden spoons and so on. Use your storytelling skills to describe what your child is doing. For example, say ‘You are pouring the water from the cup to the bowl.’ Notice sounds out loud, like ‘splash’ and ‘plop’.

Reduce background noise

Turn off the TV or background music when playing and interacting with your child. Consider reducing the number of toys you have out. You will find that your child can concentrate better on interacting with you when background noises and distractions are reduced. Interpret their efforts

When your toddler speaks, points or holds up something to show you, try saying the word that they would use if they could. If they notice a plane in the sky and point you could say ‘look, plane!’.

Watch and wait in silence

Watch your child and wait to see what happens. You may notice that your child communicates with you using subtle ways, such as:

  • tapping the ground (to tell you to sit next to them)
  • handing you a book (to tell you to read with them)
  • holding a phone to your ear (to tell you to pretend to call them).

Wait for them to indicate to you to join in and how, so you can follow their lead.