Does your toddler mumble?

Your toddler has a story to tell, and it’s a great story! It’s full of daring escapes, adventure, the triumph of good over evil …or, at least, you have to assume that it is. They are so excited that their tale of wonder and suspense is going a mile a minute, and you’ve only understood one word out of every five. You’re pretty sure it’s a story about …the neighbor’s cat? Or maybe a bat.

It doesn’t feel great to realize that your toddler is trying to tell you something, and you’re not sure what it is, but it’s a pretty common problem when you’ve got a toddler who’s somewhere between 2 and 3 years old.

Intelligibility and speech development

It’s pretty commonly known that babies and toddlers start to understand speech long before they start trying to say things. It’s slightly less talked about that, even once they really start trying to talk, it takes some time for toddlers to get good enough at using their voices to make these sounds for them to be able to make themselves understood. 

In fact, most toddlers don’t reach the point where they’re fully intelligible – that is, generally understood by adults who don’t know them 100% of the time – until around age 4. By the time your toddler turned 2, they could probably be understood by adults who didn’t know them well about half the time, and by the time they turn 3, that might be up to three-quarters of the time. They are still learning, though, and for a few years, it’s going to be you and the other people who know them best who will be best able to understand them, and you may find yourself “translating” for strangers. And in the end, there are probably going to still be moments where even you can’t crack the code for the next few years.

Strategies for dealing with unintelligible speech

You’ve probably noticed that, a lot of the time, even when you can’t understand exactly what your toddler is trying to tell you by listening, you can figure it out from the context. Sometimes, though, even context may not be able to end the mystery. When this happens, you may be able to figure it out by:

  • Asking them if they can describe it another way. If they are having trouble with a specific word, they may have other words they know how to say that could describe what’s going on.
  • Asking them to slow down, open their mouth really wide when they talk, and try again. This strategy will probably work best if you spend some time when you’re understanding each other perfectly well playing a game where you repeat sentences back and forth to each other, first faster and faster till it’s too fast, then slower and slower until it’s too slow, and then just right.
  • Playing twenty questions! Not literally, since it could take a whole lot more than twenty of them to get to the bottom of the mystery of what Baby is trying to tell you, but by asking them yes-or-no questions about what they want.

Speech delays

Children develop speech at their own pace, and that pace varies widely while still falling under a healthy range. If you can’t understand any or most of what your 2-year-old says, though, there’s a chance they could benefit from a little extra help with their language development. The average toddler at this age can say about 50 words, can link together two-word phrases, and can be understood by a parent or caregiver about half the time. If you have concerns about your toddler’s language development, it’s worth talking through with their pediatrician, and checking if they think a hearing evaluation, or an Early Intervention evaluation might be helpful.

  • Bowen, C. (2011). Table1: Intelligibility. Retrieved June 14 2017.
  • James Coplan, John R. Gleason. “Unclear Speech: Recognition and Significance of Unintelligible Speech in Preschool Children.” Pediatrics. 82(3). September 1988. Retrieved June 14 2017.
  • Mary L. Gavin. “Communication and your 2-to-3-year-old.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, August 2014. Retrieved June 14 2017.
  • Jay L. Hoecker. “Should I be concerned that by 2-year-old doesn’t say many words and is hard to understand?” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, February 11 2016. Retrieved June 14 2017.
  • Michelle Pascoe. “Speech Intelligibility.” Apraxia-KIDS. Apraxia-KIDS. Retrieved June 14 2017.
  • Jenna Rayburn. “How to Improve Mumbling.” ASHA Leader Blog. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, February 11 2016. Retrieved June 14 2017. 

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