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So you have a child that isn’t talking yet. What should you do?

July 25, 2017

As a pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist, I see children with a variety of speech and language disorders. One of the most common is what is known as expressive language delay, which is when a child is not using the vocabulary and phrase/sentence length that is appropriate for their age. Although there can be specific medical reasons for the delay, it can also happen with no other diagnosis. For those kids who seem to understand everything but are not communicating at their age level, I encourage parents to work on building their child’s “intent to communicate.” 

Build a child’s intent to communicate

Baby Reaching for BottleAn intent to communicate is a child’s desire to talk to get what they want or need. As parents, we are so used to predicting what our child needs that we often forget to give them reasons to communicate as they get older. Without having a reason to talk some children don’t find it necessary, and this can cause language delays. Building your child’s intent to communicate means setting up their environment to give them specific opportunities to use their language. Be intentional about giving them opportunities to ask for their favorite toy or snack, or more importantly, let you know basic everyday needs like when they are hungry, thirsty or need help.

Consider simple sign language

If your child is not imitating sounds, using sign language is a good way to get them communicating. Simple sign language, otherwise known as baby signs, is not a substitute for spoken words, but it is a way to help them understand “the intent to communicate.” It actually facilitates language. Using simple signs leads to using signs with words, and then later dropping the sign and just using the word.

For an online reference for baby signs, visit

Baby PointingI like to start children using the “more” and “all done” signs. I model the sign myself, then help them use their hands to do the same. When they start imitating it independently, I push for them to use it before giving them what they want. I also recommend that when teaching a new sign you use things that the child doesn’t need, like a snack they really enjoy or parts of a toy or puzzle that they are motivated to complete. By choosing toys/snacks/activities that are for fun, you are not impacting their well-being when you don’t give it to them (because, of course, you are only giving it to them if they communicate).  I have a lot of success using bubbles as a way to teach the “more” sign.

Set up your child’s environment for specific opportunities to communicate:

  • Put most of their toys out of reach but within sight. This will encourage pointing and vocalizing as they ask to play with them. If you know what they want, have them attempt to imitate the first sound of the toy, like “d” for “doll”, or use a simple sign like “I want” or pointing to request.
  • Have a few simple toys around that encourage communication. These may include a barn with animals (which gives great opportunities for imitation of sounds like moo-moo, baa-baa, neigh-neigh, etc.), books with simple pictures (1-2 per page), animal puzzles and puzzles with everyday objects, toys that encourage pretend play with every day routines (dishes, play food, dolls with clothes, bed, bottle), and potato head. These toys provide opportunities for you to hold on to most of the pieces. You name the objects and encourage use of words or signs so your child may request them.
  • Narrate everything. While you are playing with your child or going about your daily routines, talk to your child. Name what you are doing, what you are using, why you are using it, where you are going, who you will see, and why you are buying certain things at the store. Ask them questions, even if they don’t answer. There is so much vocabulary in our everyday activities that talking about it will enrich your child and help them make connections with their environment.
  • Hands on activities. Little ones can help prepare snacks, do simple cleaning tasks like wiping the table, put away their toys, and participate in craft activities. All of these help your child learn new words, request, sequence, and gain independence.
  • Go outside. Your child will have opportunities to name objects in nature and practice doing and saying important actions like run, jump, pick up, dig, etc. The possibilities are endless!

Being a parent comes with many challenges and reasons to celebrate, and one of these is teaching them to communicate. It is important that we create opportunities for our children to use language to meet their needs. I hope these suggestions empower you to take charge of your child’s learning and language growth. I think you will enjoy watching the amazing ways your child will begin to communicate with you and connect to the world around them. 

Being a parent comes with many challenges and reasons to celebrate, and one of these is teaching them to communicate.

If you are concerned or feel that you and your child would benefit from extra support, contact a Speech-Language Pathologist to guide you. At the Outpatient Pediatric Rehabilitation Department, we have a multitude of wonderful therapists who are experts in making sure your child achieves their full potential to communicate. 

Call us today at one of our locations:

925 S. Orange Ave, Orlando, FL 32806  

Phone: 407.237.6387

1555 Howell Branch Road, Suite B1, Winter Park, FL 32789  

Phone: 407.645.2081