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. Her 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 her mouth and wow you with a paragraph, or if she is going to slow-and-steady her 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 her language development. You think Baby is learning a lot now, just because she 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 she is today? Well, you’re right, but the difference between the person she is now and the person she will be when she can share what she’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 her? 

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

  • Converse: A great way to help Baby be ready to speak in sentences is to give her plenty of space to try it out by starting up back-and-forth conversations about her life, surroundings, and the way she sees the world. It doesn’t matter if she isn’t ready to hold up her side of the conversation just yet – as long as you give her the space to respond, and don’t get frustrated with her if she 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 she is saying, instead of letting her try to find the words themselves can frustrate her effort, and take away her 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 her the chance to learn more vocabulary, learn to make connections between the words she knows and the ones she doesn’t know yet, and just to recognize the patterns of her 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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