15 to 18 months
After your toddler has spit out that first word, she'll learn what she needs to do to make others--including different parts of speech, like verbs and adjectives. By 15 months, most kids are able to say 20 or more words, and the lexicon expands as weeks go by.
What to say back: Cuddle up with a good story for a no-brainer vocab booster. Perfect at this age: board books filled with short-and-sweet words, like Where Is Baby's Belly Button? by Karen Katz, or Dear Zoo, by Rod Campbell. "Talk about what's in the pictures, as well," suggests Julie Masterson, coauthor of Beyond Baby Talk: From Sounds to Sentences, A Parent's Complete Guide to Language Development. "It's fun for kids to hear you say 'See the dog? It says 'woof.'"
18 to 22 months
You know your toddler is saying something amazing--if only you could understand it. In their second year, kids become masters of nonsensical speech, producing strings of elegant gibberish that sound like a faux version of adult conversation (often complete with inflection and hand gestures). She'll also be saying around 30 or so real words-but even those may not be crystal clear.
What to say back: Ask questions that get your kid talking. If she says "boo-bee-lala" while building a block tower, ask "What do you like about the blocks?" One recent study in the journal Pediatrics showed that back-and-forth conversations between adults and little ones are the best way to improve their verbal skills.
22 to 24 months
By the time she turns 2, your toddler will likely be able to string two or three words together to make mini-sentences. A favorite to throw into the mix of the dozens of words in her growing vocabulary: "more." It's a sign that your kid is figuring out the ability of language to make things happen.
What to say back: Give her what she asks for! (Within reason, of course.) Being able to tell you what she wants is a major milestone for her, but it's a happy day for you, too. Just think: fewer meltdowns over misunderstood requests! And by responding, you show her just how powerful and rewarding talking really can be.
Are girls really more verbal?
Experts say that, for reasons yet unknown, females usually hit verbal milestones a bit earlier than males. "Speech delays and disorders also occur more frequently in boys," says Julie Masterson, a communications professor at Missouri State University. However, language skills do tend to even out over time--and you certainly can help the process by talking to and reading with your kids.
Help for late talkers
Your friend's baby is producing complex sentences at 15 months; at the same age, your little one is content to mumble "Mama." Should you worry? It's hard not to! But the "normal" range for babies is huge--anything from 9 months to 15 months for the first word, for instance. Bilingual kids may hit milestones later, as they work to process two different languages (and the mouth actions it takes to produce them). However, 1 in 5 kids will have a speech or language delay of some sort--so watch for these red flags:
Your child misses any verbal milestones by 4 months (she's not cooing, say).
Your 15-month-old isn't saying any recognizable words.
Your 2-year-old hasn't combined any words.
Suspect a problem? Ask your pediatrician to order up a hearing test. If it comes back normal, consult a certified speech-language pathologist (find one in your area at Asha.org). The good news: The earlier your little one gets help, the more likely she'll be to get back on track.