Once again, I had a play session with a mom who told me that her child “didn’t have any words yet.” Her little Will was fifteen months old and typically at that age, children should have a few words that they are saying. I always encourage the parents to listen a little closer and usually they identify some words that their toddler is using.

There is a big variance in what children chose to say first. Unfortunately it isn’t usually “Mommy” which would sure make us moms feel really good! But first words are those that are meaningful to the child. One little girl said, “tickle” first because her mom played a tickle game with her that she loved. A little boy who loved his grandpa and visited him often at his car dealership said “car” first. First words are not going to be accurate in terms of their sounds, as a matter of fact they may not sound anything like the word, but for your child they represent that object or person. For example, “da” means more, “g” means dog, and “ish” is fish.

How can you tell if your child is truly saying a word?

A true word:

1. Must have meaning each time it is used. So each time your toddler points to the TV and says “do” for his Elmo DVD, it has the same meaning which can be “I want my Elmo DVD,” or “I want to watch my Elmo DVD.”

2. Shows your child’s intention to communicate. “do” is being used to communicate with you that he wants to see his Elmo DVD.

3. Is used flexibly in different contexts—home, school, or a playmate’s house. So if you are at home or at grandma’s house, your toddler would use “do” to communicate the Elmo DVD because “do” is a true word representing that object no matter where your child is.
4. Is a simple one or two syllable utterance that stands alone, with a pause after it
5. Is used in conversation with people.

6. Is determined by its usefulness in your child’s environment. First words are often objects, people or pets that are integral to your child’s daily activities such as dog, ball, juice, or cracker.

Listen closely and you will start to hear the differences in the utterances your child makes. Sure enough, the longer I played with little Will and his mom, who I referred to earlier, the more little words we heard. He rounded the corner and said “uice” in response to mom asking if he was hungry or wanted juice. When who told him not to go up the stairs he said something resembling “no.” Always reinforce your child’s attempts at words even though they might not sound correct. When he says “da” for cup, simply affirm him with “Yes, you want a CUP,” emphasizing the correct way to say the word he intended. This gives your child the correct model for him to imitate and internalize.