Communication is not just about words.

Children are communicating with parents to gain attention to their needs well before their first words. Infants wail, fuss, and reach to be picked up. Most toddlers, reach, point, and gesture to indicate what they want, with or without accompanying verbal sounds. All these are forms of communication with which a child has his or her needs met.


If your child has a language delay, you may be groping for ways to help him start communicating with you. In order to support your child’s language development, it’s important to show your child that his/her attempts at conveying his/her needs are effective. You can facilitate that understanding to improve his motivation and enhance his skills. This is done with intervention strategies with the help of a qualified early intervention therapist. Clinicians who can assist you with this process are usually special instructors and speech/language pathologists.


A system of effective interventions are described below. If your child already has an EI team servicing him, discuss these steps with your team. If you don’t have an EI team yet, or your child doesn’t qualify for services, try these out yourself and assess the results independently.

Please Note: Children with autism respond best to structured, research-driven interventions such as ABA, PECS and other specific strategies. Although the interventions described below, may be helpful for children with autism, a much more comprehensive program is recommended.



  1. Delay gratification:

Your child is grunting and opening the fridge and you know he wants apple juice in his sippy cup. That doesn’t mean you need to give it to him immediately. Delaying gratification for several seconds to one minute gives you the opportunity to teach him a more effective form of communication than simply grunting and reaching.


  1. Model a sign, gesture, word, or sound:

During your several second to one-minute delay, model a sign, gesture or word to your child to demonstrate what s/he should be doing right now.

    • Signs– baby signs are easy to learn, and can be a helpful tool for your not-yet-talking toddler. You can learn a few signs and watch videos at
    • Gesture- pointing to the object he wants is a more effective method of communication than simply reaching
    • Words- Chose one simple word or even a sound to model. In this case, the word “cup” would work. Don’t model a full sentence and expect your child to respond. You’re asking too much!
    • Sound- For some children, you may want to model just one sound, such as “up” for cup. There are a variety of reasons to do this, and it may be helpful in ensuring a successful response from the child.
  1. React to the child’s response. Depending on what your child does in response to your model, provide an appropriate reaction. See the table below for the “what ifs”
If your child imitates your sign, gesture, word, or sound: If your child does not imitate your gesture, word, sign or sound.
Praise the child, while immediately gratifying his wish. Use your face, voice, and body language to convey that you are pleased with his imitation. No matter what you modeled, take your child’s hands in your own and help him/her sign or gesture with hand-over-hand assistance. Then, immediately gratify the child’s wish. Use your face, voice, and body language to convey that you are pleased that s/he allowed you to help him/her communicate.



The steps above are a simple, yet effective system to provide intervention for your child. It works because it establishes an expectation for communication from the child in order to grant his/her wants and needs. The child learns that communication is functional and beneficial for him, and is the key to gratification. Adults that are accustomed to granting their child’s needs immediately may have a learning curve while they develop new habits. Don’t worry! Changing and adapting are all part of growing with your baby.


Good luck!


Chaya Glatt, SI