3 Tips From an SLP to Help Your Toddler Communicate
I think it's safe to say, a baby's first words are one of the most highly anticipated milestones for parents. You may be wondering what you can do to help your toddler learn to talk. The truth is that through back-and-forth interaction and repetition of frequently used vocabulary, they will likely say their first words in their own time. This often happens around 12 months of age for children who are learning language typically.
There are a few strategies I have used, however, with my children to help them communicate their needs before they were reliably using words to communicate. Having a means of communication can help reduce frustration at not being understood and help lay the foundation for the back-and-forth nature of conversations in the future.
You can try the following with your baby before they are talking, and continue using these strategies until they have enough words to communicate their needs verbally. These are also great strategies to use if your child is delayed in learning to talk (in conjunction with receiving help from a speech language pathologist.)
Touch - With my son who was not using any gestures or words to communicate, I decided that a simple touch on my hand would be the easiest way for him to send me a message. I showed him how to touch my hand when he wanted more of something such as a preferred activity, food, or another song. This method is the simplest but also the most limited as only one type of message can be sent (desiring more).
Signing - Signing can be a great option for babies to communicate their needs as they are typically able to sign before they can speak. A study of babies learning to sign as their primary language found that they began signing their first words at 8.5 months on average, which is a few months earlier than babies typically begin speaking. (Bonvillian et al., 1983).
I have always used the signs for 'more,' 'all done,' and 'eat' with my children from a young age. Both of my daughters used these signs to communicate even after they began speaking, and often used them to clarify their meaning if I did not understand what they said. Other useful signs could be 'milk,' 'help,' 'tired,' etc. You don't have to use American Sign Language (ASL) if you would prefer to make up your own signs, however, if you do use ASL, this may help your toddler communicate with more people as many people are familiar with a few basic signs.
Pictures - Pictures communication systems are a very useful tool for older children who have limited verbal communication, but a simplified version can also be used with toddlers to offer more variety to the messages that they can send. I used pictures to represent specific songs that my first daughter enjoyed. She would bring me a picture to request a song and I would sing it to her like her own personal juke box. Pictures can be a great way for toddlers to request things they can't see to point at, such as food from the kitchen or particular songs or people games. You can make your own (as we did by taking screenshots from the song videos on YouTube) or you can find templates online and 'laminate' them by covering them in clear packing tape.
Teach your child through modelling - Once you have selected a method of communication to use with your child, begin pairing it with the word that you want it to represent. For example, if you want your child to bring you a picture to ask for milk, begin showing your child the picture when you offer milk to them. You can also use hand-over-hand help (placing your hand over your child's) to guide them as they hand you the picture before you give them the milk. Continue doing this until they begin to use the picture to request milk. Remember to keep it fun, never withhold the item or activity if they don't send you a message. Be patient - repetition will be necessary for your child to learn to associate the picture with the word and then to begin to use it to communicate. You can also use more than one alternative form of communication to see if your child prefers one over the other.
Remember, most children learn to speak without any additional intervention. Using these strategies is not necessary and likely will not impact when your child begins to speak, but may reduce frustration in the meantime and perhaps help you avoid a few toddler meltdowns, which as a parent of three young children, sounds like a win to me!
Bonvillian, J. D., Orlansky, M. D., & Novack, L. L. (1983). Developmental milestones: sign language acquisition and motor development. Child development, 54(6), 1435–1445.