Help! I Can’t Understand My Toddler!

by | Oct 9, 2020

Your child has their first words. Hooray!

Now comes a new worry: You can’t understand your toddler.

You’re probably wondering, “Okay, what the heck is he saying?”

Don’t worry. This is completely normal.

When Should I Be Able To Understand My Toddler?

As a general rule of thumb, you should be able to understand your toddler 25% of the time between 1-2 years, 50% of the time between 2-3 years, 75% of the time from 3-4 years, and almost all the time after 4 years of age.

There are a few different things that happen when children are learning how to speak.

First, they need to make the connection between the object they see in their environment and the actual word. For example, they see a ball, and know that this is called a ball.

Now that they have the idea, they need to make the motor plan. This means trying to figure out how the lips, tongue, and jaw work together to make sounds. This is tricky business and takes some time. For a word like ball, they need to put their lips together, turn their voice on, open their mouth, and elevate their tongue. Phew. I’m tired just writing that.

Third, your child needs the confidence to make these attempts at saying the new word (hello, praise and encouragement!)

While all this is going on, in the background, your child’s brain is trying to make sense of all these new patterns of words, and applying these rules (sometimes too often) to the words they are saying. So, a word like “ball” becomes “ba”, but a word like “bat” also becomes “ba”. So confusing!

This phonological process (known as “final consonant deletion”) is a completely typical learning milestone in children up to three years old when most children learn that words in English have an ending sound. However, for you as a parent, it may make understanding your child a little more difficult.

How Can I Make It Easier to Understand My Child?

In this case, you have two options to help you understand your toddler:

1. Use context clues to figure out what your child is talking about

For example, if you hear the word “ba” and all you see is a ball, chances are your child is trying to talk about the ball. You can repeat the word “Oh, you want the ball?” and then give the ball to your child.

2. Pretend you understand your toddler and continue to provide praise.

Sometimes it may not be possible to use context to understand your child. If, in the above example, there is a ball and a bat, you may be thinking “Oh no! I have no idea what my child is saying”.

Now, you’ll “fake it til you make it” and make a really open-ended comment, like “wow!” or “oooo!” Continue to provide praise and encouragement for your child, but seek out some more details for next time.

Raising a child can be daunting, especially if you are worried that you can’t understand your child. You don’t have to do it alone. Come join me in my next Free Live Series to learn the tips and tricks you need to get your child talking without wasting time on the trial and error.


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Hi, I’m Jocelyn M. Wood, Bilingual Speech Language Pathologist and child development expert.

I’m here to show you how to bring out your child’s unique voice using simple, easy to follow strategies that work for you and your family.

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