Why Isn't My 20-month-old Talking Yet?

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Question: Why Isn't My 20-month-old Talking Yet?

A reader asks,

"Our 20-month-old granddaughter is not talking. Should we be concerned? She can say a few words (ma-ma, da-da, bye, woof) but uses them infrequently. She follows instructions (go get ____, throw this away, let's go to the car, etc.), communicates quite well without words and makes sounds. Are there other late-talkers of this age?"


Yes, indeed there are.

My son is one of them. He was 3 years old and speaking only a handful of words -- the same ones your granddaughter is using plus a few more. Just after turning 3, he began to speak in complete sentences and his vocabulary just exploded.

During that time of him not really speaking, it was clear that he had an understanding of just about anything I said and would follow instructions with no problem. There were no other issues in other areas of his development and he'd passed a hearing test with flying colors. It sounds like this is also the case with your granddaughter, but it's a good idea to have her hearing tested to rule out any problems there which can affect how her speech develops.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, at 1 to 2 years of age, children should:

  • Say more words every month.
  • Use some one- or two- word questions ("Where kitty?" "Go bye-bye?" "What's that?").
  • Put two words together ("more cookie," "no juice," "mommy book").
  • Use many different consonant sounds at the beginning of words.

They also have a number of things you can do to help your granddaughter improve her speech development now and when she's older.

One of the things they recommend is that you ask open-ended questions instead of yes / no questions:

For example, rather than asking, 'Do you want milk? Do you want 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 mommy what you want. Mommy will get you a glass of milk.' 

This addresses something that I see many parents and other caregivers do. It's so easy with everything we have going on in our lives. We get busy and maybe we're making breakfast in a rush and we just want to get the job done. We don't always leave room for lengthy verbal interactions. We also may not be in the habit of offering choices to our toddlers because they've been so dependent on us to make every decision for them since infancy. (If this sounds like you, start offering choices and you'll see much more than just language development taking place. You'll often see a reduction in behaviors like saying "No" and temper tantrums.)

Another similar issue I've seen many times is where children with older siblings and children of parents who practice attachment parenting speak later. Sometimes an older sibling does all the talking for a younger one and 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. Still, you can use the ASHA tips to help improve your granddaughter's language skills.

So, to sum up, right now I wouldn't worry about your granddaughter having a delay. If she is closing in on turning 3 years old and you've been working with her in the ways mentioned above but she still hasn't added new words or started putting words together, then you should talk with your pediatrician or seek the advice of a professional speech language pathologist.

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