My friend has a baby. I’m recording all the noises he makes so later I can ask him what he meant.

Stephen Wright

In the early toddler years, parents must weather the time period when their children are learning to coherently pronounce words and form sentences. They must also patiently wait as their children master the ability to communicate their thoughts and needs as quickly as they become aware of them (which frankly may take longer than a year or two).

Babies begin babbling at around two months of age. To the parent who isn’t too exhausted to identify the difference, infants have distinguishable cries for hunger, pain, and pleasure. By six months or so, babies are usually quite pleased with the sounds they can make (not to mention the amount of saliva they can produce while making them). They can repeat single syllables and begin listening more intently to those around them.

By one year of age, most babies can follow simple instructions, and should recognize their name when called. They typically have a five- to six-word vocabulary, and in some sick twist of fate, one of those words (and likely their favorite) is quite possibly “No.” As I’ve mentioned, one way for parents to keep this word out of their children’s vocabulary for as long as possible is to use it as infrequently as possible themselves! Remember, if your babies were premature, they may not follow these guidelines exactly. Work with your pediatrician to determine whether or not your children are on track given their gestational age at birth.

According to Katherine Cook, an Illinois-based speech-language pathologist, “Many children have quite a limited vocabulary by their first birthday, and this does not necessarily mean that they are delayed. Speech milestones are approximations, and there is a wide range of ‘normal’ in the first nine to fifteen months.”

By the time they celebrate the end of their first year with what is possibly their first taste of cake, most babies begin making more obvious attempts to communicate specific needs. The frustration that can result when parents don’t respond exactly as the child wishes can be hard on everyone involved. When two children are trying to communicate simultaneously, a parent can begin to wonder if her own head might soon start to spin around exorcist-style as she tries to figure out what each of them wants amidst the garbled yelling.

One approach to communicating with children who are this young?an approach that has gained increasing popularity in recent years?is sign language. Notes Tracy Kunce, a speech-language pathologist in the Western Chicago suburbs (and heavily responsible for the fact that Henry, while not knowing his own name until he was sixteen months old, will now not stop talking), “Sign language is a wonderful way to enrich the language environment and ease communication with little ones who aren’t speaking much yet.”

Parents can begin teaching a baby signs for common words such as “more,” “eat,” “sleep,” and “all done,” between four and six months of age. With consistent reinforcement many children will begin using these signs between seven and eleven months of age to communicate their needs and desires. Until they were at least three years old, Jack and Henry remembered the signs for “more,” and “please.” Even at three and a half years of age, Henry was so fascinated by sign language that he continued to pick up new signs even though he could communicate orally on par with any other child his age. There is a whole slew of books available on teaching your child sign language as well as several video tapes and DVDs, should you need the instruction to be more visual.

According to Cook, “If, by one year of age, a child doesn’t appear to know his name, isn’t babbling at all, or if parents believe their child’s overall speech and language skills are leap years behind those of his peers, a consult with their doctor and/or a speech-pathologist or audiologist should ease their concern or confirm the need for intervention.”

The toddler years are notoriously trying when it comes to communication. The greatest frustration parents experience is perhaps the feeling that their child can understand what they are asking or requesting of him, but can’t effectively communicate his needs in response.

A one to two-year-old should be able to identify body parts and speak in two- to three-word combinations. Remember, a lot of growth occurs between the ages of one and two. Most newly turned one-year-olds are not speaking in two-word sentences. Many don’t yet produce any recognizable words. But a lot can happen in 364 days, so don’t fear that when your child is almost two, he still won’t be speaking in two- to three-word sentences. Even if he is, he may not be able to voice his needs fluently. However, he will usually figure out a way to get what he wants.

Continuing to use sign language during this time is not only appropriate, it might even prove quite beneficial. A toddler is capable of far more signs than a baby, and while his pronunciation is developing, signs will assist in making hard-to-pronounce words easier to understand. Some parents worry that at this age, using sign language might hinder a child’s speech development. Not true. Kunce reassures that “baby signs are not a replacement for speech; they actually help facilitate language development” and recommends that parents always use words and signs together.

Additionally, beware of supporting the apparent invention of a word by your child. It’s easy to fall into a pattern where you refer to a shoe as a “doo” because your child refers to it that way. But the only way your child will learn to ultimately pronounce the word properly is by hearing it spoken properly by others.

Case in point: Our daughter Grace always referred to a blanket as a muckley. That’s how she reproduced the sounds she heard early on. David and I therefore began to refer to blankets as “muckleys.” Today, all six of us refer to blankets as “muckleys,” and while the older three kids (and obviously David and I as well) do indeed know that a blanket and a “muckley” are the same thing, we tend to forget that the rest of the world does not. It’s fun when we have guests over and a kid says, “I need a muckley.” David or I throw a blanket to him while our guests look on as though they must have been asleep the day that the definition of “muckley” was taught in English class.

As with everything else in parenting, it is so important to trust your instincts when it comes to your child’s speech and language development. If you are concerned that something is just not right in terms of your child’s development in this area, make an appointment with his doctor to discuss it. If your primary physician isn’t concerned, but you aren’t reassured in a short timeframe, contact a qualified speech professional on your own.

I promise, over the next few years, the kids will learn to communicate, and much of what they say is going to make you keel over with laughter. I am stopped dead in my tracks several times a week and have been ever since we got over that whole I-refuse-to-communicate-by-any-method-other-than-wailing period over comments I can hardly believe are exiting the mouth of one of my kids.

One day sooner than you can imagine, you’ll surely be able to have lengthy discussions with your child about the theories of Freud or the views of Socrates. And when that happens, it might just be you who’s in the position of trying to keep up!