What can be the reasons if a 21-month-old toddler is not talking or trying to say any words? How “late” is it?

Here, a concerned mom asks about her 21-month-old, who hasn’t started to talk yet. We go through normal language development and milestones, what is considered to be late, possible reasons for delayed language and speech development, and what to do as a parent.

21-Month-Old Toddler Is Not Talking Pin

Mom’s Question:

My 21-month-old toddler is not talking or trying to say any words, not even ”mama”. Is this abnormal? I am really worried that something is wrong with him because I think it is very late not to talk at all at 21 months of age.

Please help,

21-Month-Old Toddler is NOT Talking: Possible Causes and Actions to Take

Typical Language and Speech Milestones

So your 21-month-old toddler is not talking at all. This is indeed quite late. In general, 1 out of 6 children may exhibit signs of language delay by 2 years old.

Looking at language development (and communicating in general), these are the expected developmental milestones per age group:

At 4 to 11 months

Babies start to use their voices to communicate. Some examples are cooing and babbling. You can hear them say “ooohh”, “aaaahh”, “ma-ma-ma” or “ba-ba”. They sometimes make garbled sounds, or try to repeat what you say as if they’re part of a conversation with you!

They may start learning their first word or two as they near their first birthday. Mostly, they try to communicate through their actions or gestures.

At 12 to 17 months

By this time, babies understand that they can call their parents specifically using “mama” or “dada”. They also start to understand the meaning of some words, like “no”. Sometimes, they can say only the first half of a word, like “da” for dog.

They may also now know several other words. Most toddlers can follow simple instructions that have gestures, such as “kick the ball”. It also goes the other way around – they now know how to communicate by pointing at objects.

At 18 to 23 months

By this age, many toddlers now learn and use around 20 to 50 words. They start combining a few words to make short phrases or sentences. Note that although they can understand a lot of words now, they might still have problems with pronunciation, which is entirely normal.

At this stage, they also start to understand simple directions, even without any gestures, like “pass me the ball”.

At 2 years

Speech is improving quickly, with more words and longer sentences. Some words might not be fully comprehensible yet, but generally, most people will understand what they’re trying to say. They still find it easier to use gestures along with words so that people can understand more quickly.

Usually, by about 2 years, toddlers are starting to learn at least one new word per day and try to repeat them.

So, just as you say, not talking at all at 21 months is definitely late. Based on the current guidance of experts, instead of the “wait and see” approach, it’s best to act early so that kids who are at risk of developmental disorders may receive earlier treatment and support. This is especially true for children who are younger than 3 years old.

Signs that Your Child Needs Developmental Screening

You don’t mention whether your son does interact with you and how he does it. Does your little boy make noises and respond to noises? Does he follow simple commands and understand simple questions? Does he point to pictures when you read books together? Has he said at least a word or two?

In short, has he been able to achieve the other language milestones in the correct order? If he has, that in itself is a good sign. What you have to check next is which stage he is in right now.

Take a look at these points. These are signals that you should discuss your son’s development with his doctor to rule out any language delay or disorder:

  • By 9 months – no babbling
  • By 15 months – no first word yet
  • By 12-18 months – says only a few words
  • By 18 months – no consistent use of words in communicating
  • By 24 months – no use of 2-word phrases (or combining words), or difficulty understanding your child’s words

There are cases when children might simply be late in their developmental milestones – my oldest son didn’t walk at 20 months! He had a check-up for this, but nothing was wrong with him. He just liked crawling!

However, healthcare authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise not to wait to discuss with your son’s doctor. It can take some worrying off your chest, and if your baby does need help – the sooner he gets support, the better!

What can cause a language delay?

Learning different languages

More languages mean more words to catch up on! In a bilingual or multilingual environment, a child may seem to take longer to learn words and hit developmental milestones, but this is quite normal.

Other non-medical reasons

Sometimes, babies living in a very quiet environment, without much interaction, take a little longer to start talking. A lot of parents also notice that second or third babies tend to talk a little earlier, as they have a lot more interaction and stimulation from older siblings.

Some studies also show that boys might take a little longer to develop language skills compared to girls.

Medical conditions

A language delay may be a sign of another condition, like autism or Down syndrome.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Autism is a developmental disorder involving difficulties with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behavior.

Many autistic children have language concerns – about 75% of kids with ASD have some form of language delay—the exact reason why (or how) isn’t clear yet. More research is underway to determine the relationship between ASD and language delay.

You can read about the signs of autism in children here.

Down Syndrome

In Down syndrome (also called Trisomy 21), a child inherits an extra chromosome from his parents. This extra chromosome affects how the brain (and some areas of the body) develop. Nearly 1 in every 700 babies is diagnosed with Down syndrome.

One of the characteristics seen in Down syndrome is a slower development of speech and language. They may also have a lower intelligence quotient (IQ) and several physical features, like a flattened face, almond eyes, small ears, short height, and poor muscle tone.

Hearing Impairment

Does your son react to sounds in general? If yes, his hearing is probably fine, but I would suggest checking with your public health nurse or doctor on this just to rule out the possibility that your son has a hearing problem. You can do a quick test at home by sneaking up behind him and making a scrunching noise with paper near his ear – see if he turns to that side to find the noise.

Unknown cause

Sometimes, language delays can just happen on their own without any clear cause. In this case, most of the time, the language delay can be corrected with proper treatment. 

What you can do to stimulate his speech development

In addition to talking to his healthcare provider, there are a number of ways you can help your son with his speech development.

Talk to your child

Remember that even if he isn’t talking, he most likely absorbs a lot and understands far more than you think. Some babies just sit, watch, absorb, and do very little talking or trying to talk and then suddenly start chattering away by the time they are three.

The best you can do as his parent is to encourage him by having many conversations with him. Make eye contact and respond when he makes noises, even if they don’t sound like anything. Talk about everything you see when you are at home or while taking him for a walk.

Ask him simple questions. When doing everyday routines, like dressing up for a walk in the park, ask him for his choices – like what shirt to wear or which toys to bring.

No baby talk

Make sure you talk in adult talk, not baby talk. “Goo” -ing and “Gah” -ing at a baby is fun, but it doesn’t teach them anything more at this age. Name things when you pass them to him. Play games such as “where’s your tummy?” and “Where’re your toes?”. That will help with language development.

Playtime, especially “pretend play”, also promotes language development. Your son will enjoy it more if he plays with you or with a family member.

Limit His Screen time

Research has shown that children under 2 should not have screen time. This includes watching the TV and playing with smartphones, tablets, and other handheld screens. Screen time takes away time your child should use to interact with people and his environment. This is how he will learn how to communicate with others. The more screen time he has, the more likely he will begin talking later.

In fact, for every additional 30 minutes of handheld mobile media device use in 18-month-old babies, researchers found 2.3 times increased risk of expressive speech delay. So limit screen time for your son, too, if you aren’t already!

Limit Your Own Screen Time

New studies show that even parents who have a lot of screen time may indirectly contribute to language issues with their kids. Spending too much time focused on your phone or the TV reduces the amount of time you could spend talking and interacting with your child. This is the best way for him to learn to communicate with others.

You’ll find more ideas on how to teach your toddler to talk here.

I’m sure before you know it, he will be asking endless “why?” questions, and you will wish for some peace and quiet!

Wishing you Joy and good luck,
(Answer approved by our Medical Reference Team)

More About Toddler Development


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This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Yudi Nadler

    I would also suggest speaking to the pediatrician about a referral to Early Intervention for an evaluation in addition to a formal hearing evaluation. A speech delay is just that – a delay- not a disability. The earlier a child can receive support the better – it is not therapy, but parent education.

  2. Ted

    My son does not talk either. He is going to be 21 months old on 26th of this month. He says papa when asked to say mama and say ‘wahish?’ means to say ‘what is this’, and jaji for daddy sometimes..(very rare). He points at almost everything correctly. He knows almost all the part of body. It still freaks me out because there are no real words yet!

  3. Lisa

    My 2 year old isn’t talking either, but when I read a book to her I ask, “What is so and so?” and she can point them out. I know she knows what I’m saying, and the objects around her.

  4. Raychill

    Hi, I can understand why you are worried! I think this is something to be concerned about as I have been through the same thing with my son – and it turned out he was Autistic…

    You need to look for other signs though. Does he respond when you call his name or does he tend to not respond as if he doesn’t hear you? Is he hypo? Does he have high tolerance to pain ??? So when he does something to himself that makes you go ouch!! Does he jus get up like that didn’t hurt an you just think gee my boys tough lol!

    Does he listen when you tell him no don’t touch! Or hop off of that ???

    Cause Autistic children don’t understand the concept of thing like a normal child. They understand actions more than words.

    When he see’s something he likes for example a plane – does he point and look at you as to say wow mum did you see that??? Cause Autistic kids don’t tend to share their experience’s.

    Don’t stress until you have tried all these things.

    Some children can be delayed but I would be concerned as he is very late to talk. Could be his ears, I would get them tested and if you have already had them done, I would get a second opinion.

    I went to many doctors who just laughed at me an told me he was normal until he was nearly three and wasn’t talking an then they did test and discovered I wasn’t overreacting.

    Good luck and if you need to ask me anything feel free to do so!

    1. Sharon mcfeely

      Hello can I ask u a few questions? My daughter is 21 months old and hasn’t said a word yet not mama or daddy, smtimes reacts wen u call her name but doesn’t take direction at all, always head butts things and turns lights on and off and smtimes flaps wen she gets excited, can you give me any advice plz?

      1. Paula @ EasyBabyLife

        Hi Sharon,
        I wanted to answer you even if you asked a fellow reader – who might also answer. :-)

        It’s so good that you react! Have you discussed your daughter’s behavior with her health nurse or a pediatrician? It does sound to me as if she has issues that should be checked. What do you think about her hearing – does she move to music, does she babble? She could have autism-related challenges or a hearing problem. I really think you have her assessed asap. No matter what problems she may have, early intervention is the best.

        Of course, she might just be a bit late, but from what you describe, I do think it could be something more.

        In addition to that, make sure to talk to her a lot, sing, play games and interact in lots of ways. This will help her development, and make both you and her happy! :-)

        Please let us know how things proceed!

  5. Sheila

    My 2 year is not saying much, only 15 words. He had a hearing test when he was 2 weeks old and they said he has slight problem. I didn’t go for further tests, because I knew he is fine. Now he can hear even quite noises. If I say can you get milk or ball etc…in a whisper.

    Because a seed has been planted I am still concerned back of my mind. I feel like going for another test but what’s the point all they will do is ask him to press button if or when he can hear something. He is only 2 so he isn’t going to act what they say. I live with him 24 hours so I know he can hear and he understand everything.

    I don’t know what to do can someone help….has anyone been through what I have been through?? Please help.

  6. Dee

    I am a very concerned grandma living in the UK. My kids are all grown up, but I have the most gorgeous little grandson a week and a half off his 2nd birthday who isn’t really talking.

    He kind of says mummy and daddy and he calls me ma ma and he can say nanna and narna for banana but that is it.

    He appears to be developing at a normal rate in all other areas. He responds when his name is called, he will bring anything you ask him to get. He answers all questions in his books by pointing and makes animal noises for all the animals, but apparently he does have days when he is very unhappy and cries and screams for ever, which drives my daughter to distraction. He has done that twice for me and there s really not a lot you can do with him when he is like that.

    If he wants something he always takes your hand and takes you to where the thing is that he wants and I’ve just read that that is a sign of autism.

    Also he can be aggressive to other smaller children by appearing to hug them but squeezing them tighter and tighter until they cry.
    He also starts of by stroking my cats, then he grins and pulls their fur and skin up in the air until he hurts them.

    He is an only much loved and much wanted child. He is looked after by me and his other grandc when his parents have to work. He is heavily involved in baby groupware and play groups and has busy stimulating days. His parents lives revolve around him but he can’t talk. He has had all his hearing tests. Also he sometimes nips or smacks adults in the face. When I say don’t smack grandma’s face he smacks his own and pretends to cry.

    1. CaliforniaGma

      I too have a grandson that has a lot in common with your grandson. My J.J. is 28 months old now and has been tested for hearing and it is great, but still he can’t talk.

      At about a year old he could say I Love you and the cats name (Byron) and of course Ma Ma and DaDa and we heard him yell, Awesome! Once. But that was it.

      We are now involved with a place called Far Northern, which helps children and they are going to help us and him to learn some communication skills.

      But what we don’t understand is what happened? Why isn’t he talking? He seems to know what we are saying, he will grab your hand or pull or push you to go where he wants you, to get him something, but won’t or can’t talk. Makes us wonder if any of the dozen or so baby shots he got has anything to do with it? He babbles and moves his head like he is talking to us, but we can’t understand him.

  7. Krissy

    Grandmas I understand your concern and truly know what your going thru I have 2 little boys completely different in every way from each other. My 4 yr old could say and recognize the alphabet count and recognize numbers to 10 and count down knew shapes colors everything they would teach him in kindergarten by 20 months old yet he is autistic. I have a 2 yr old who doesn’t speak except mum dad bubba he was a late Walker late crawler everything but he too is autistic.
    The thing is with autism is shows up in so many different ways. It is fascinating to see how different and unique my boys are. Some days I won’t lie are complete meltdowns. However they are brilliant and just can’t slow down to my level long enough to tell me why they are doing what they are doing and they don’t have time to answer my meaningless to them questions embrace all the uniqueness that comes with every child regardless if it is autism or not. Autism is not their disability it’s ours the average human can’t think as fast as they do or have the attention to detail they do is all.
    Other autism mom I’m sorry you have this experience but just to clarify one thing you said incorrectly both of my autisic boys share their wow moments and seek my reactions to things. Each child is different regardless of any medical issues.

  8. MD QuTub

    my sis.is 2.5 years..
    she only speak ,mom and dad..
    she hear everything and response all..