When do toddlers start to speak in sentences?

Baby’s first (or first intentional!) word is an occasion – it’s exciting, it’s a landmark, it’s something to remember. His first sentence comes with a different kind of anticipation – the kind that comes when single-word requests for “water!” “ball!” or so many children’s favorite, “more!” start to get old. Your second-grade teacher would be so proud of how excited you are to have more complex sentences in your home.

The short answer is that children usually start stringing together two or three words into sentences or phrases sometime around 2 and a half years old. Different children follow different speech patterns, though, and just like slow walkers who skip the toddling phase entirely to just stand up one day and start training for the nearest marathon, it’s impossible to tell whether a consistent winner of The Quiet Game is about to open up his mouth and wow you with a paragraph, or if he is going to slow-and-steady his way straight into kindergarten.

One of the other important things about that first two- or three-word sentence is that it’s often a sign that a child is on the edge of another huge leap forward in his language development. You think Baby is learning a lot now, just because he has gone from a non-verbal pile of adorable who wasn’t even sure you were the same person when you changed your hairstyle to the bright, curious, interesting person he is today? Well, you’re right, but the difference between the person he is now and the person he will be when he can share what he’s thinking with you is going to be staggering, too, and that first two-word sentence, even if it’s as simple and potentially frustrating as “no night-night,” is where it starts.

How can I encourage him? 

Baby will start speaking in sentences when he is ready, but there are also ways that you can help him get ready, too.

  • Converse: A great way to help Baby be ready to speak in sentences is to give him plenty of space to try it out by starting up back-and-forth conversations about his life, surroundings, and the way he sees the world. It doesn’t matter if he isn’t ready to hold up his side of the conversation just yet – as long as you give him the space to respond, and don’t get frustrated with him if he isn’t ready to talk back yet, “conversations”, even one-sided ones, are a great place to start.
  • Don’t step in too soon: It can be frustrating to see Baby struggling to communicate in ways that are as simple as the ABCs for you, but stepping in to finish what he is saying, instead of letting him try to find the words themselves can frustrate his effort, and take away his motivation to figure out how to speak for themselves.
  • Narrate your life: By far the most important ingredient for Baby’s readiness to communicate in words is exposure to language. Being exposed to more words gives him the chance to learn more vocabulary, learn to make connections between the words he knows and the ones he doesn’t know yet, and just to recognize the patterns of his native language. It’s been proven that words spoken directly to babies have a much greater impact on their language development than words they just happen to be in the room to hear.

  • Bjorn Carey. “Stanford psychologist shows why talking to kids really matters.” Stanford News. Stanford University, February 13 2014. Web.

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