I don’t know about you, mama, but I always struggled with encouraging my oldest to communicate when he was younger! I wasn’t sure what to say, and I never knew what to do when I’d start a conversation and he’d just leave me hanging, saying nothing or staring at me blankly while I just sat there. (So awkward!) I’d try asking him a million questions, which sometimes he’d answer, but they wouldn’t lead us anywhere. I knew that what I was doing wasn’t working, but I didn’t know any better. So there were many mealtimes where we’d just sit there, in silence. Him in his own little world, and me overthinking, under-communicating, and dying to be let in.
If you’re in that place right now, or maybe your baby is getting close to the toddler stage and you want to work on their language and communication skills right from the start, you’ll love this episode. I’m joined by Katie and Carly, speech-language pathologists, moms of 6, and founders of Wee Talkers, as they spill tons of info and tips on what to do, what not to do, and what works when it comes to talking with your toddler at mealtimes.
Grab a coffee, set the cruise control, or head out on your 15-minute mental health walk. You are about to feel SO much less awkward about communicating with little humans who don’t always communicate back!
Meet Carly & Katie from Wee Talkers
Katie and Carly are licensed pediatric speech-language pathologists specializing in early intervention and the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of speech and language disorders in children ages birth to five. Together, they run Wee Talkers, where they teach parents of babies and toddlers how to support their child’s language and communication development.
Through online education, courses, and memberships, they offer connection-driven language resources that help families and children of all abilities learn to communicate to their fullest potential. Katie and Carly are also parents of 6 kids between them, so they get what life with littles is like! The tips they share are simple, doable, and fit easily into busy family life.
In This Episode, We Discuss…
- Why you should stop asking so many questions (And what to do instead) (02:12)
- Why mealtimes are great for encouraging communication (06:02)
- How being face-to-face helps toddlers talk more (07:46)
- How using your 5 senses can keep the conversation rollin’ (08:47)
- Why you don’t need to talk alllll day long (10:35)
- Using visuals, toys & books during mealtimes (12:32)
- How Wee Talkers can help you help your little one talk and communicate more (16:55)
Listen to the full episode here:
Tools To Get Them Talking And Communicating At Mealtime
Want to help your toddler communicate more during mealtimes and beyond? Snag the free downloads and low-cost resources we gushed about in this episode:
- Wee Talkers Toddler Language Milestones Checklist (Free Download)
- Wee Talkers Toddler Storytime & Song Video (Free Download)
- Wee Talkers TalkToddler Course
- Wee Talkers Songs & Stories Membership
- Mama Knows Nutrition Breakfast Cards (Free Download)
Episode #35: How To Teach Your Toddler To Talk At Mealtimes (Complete Transcript)
Kacie: Something that I found very challenging with my oldest when he was a toddler, was encouraging him to talk and communicate, and if you’re in that place right now or maybe you’re back, I’m the one who messes up, or maybe your baby is getting close to the toddler stage, and you wanna work on their language and communication skills. Today, I’m joined by the lovely creators of Wee Talkers, we have Carly and Katie, both speech-language pathologists. And they offer online resources for parents of babies and toddlers to support their child’s language and communication development.
Welcome back to Feeding Toddlers Made Easy. I’m Kacie Barnes, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and owner of Mama Knows Nutrition. This is the place where we solve your feeding struggles with your little ones! And I’m so thrilled to have Carly and Katie here today because they’re going to help us with toddlers talking and how you can work on these skills at mealtimes specifically. So Carly and Katie, welcome!
Wee Talkers: Thanks, Kay. We’re so happy to be here!
Kacie: Glad you’re here. You’re both moms too, and Carly, you’re in Canada, and Katie, you’re in Arizona. So someone tell me, how did you all get connected to start Wee Talkers?
Wee Talkers: [Carly] Well, one day I just slipped into [Katie’s] Instagram DMs, it is true that we met on Instagram, we were both sharing similar content for parents to help them encourage their child’s communication skills, and we were just kind of friends and we would DM back and forth, we would even bounce ideas off each other for different things. We would share each other’s resources. And then when the pandemic hit I was like, I need to do something more for parents basically, but I can’t do this on my own. Because I was in the same boat as everybody else—less support, my kids were home more…Wo I was like, It would be amazing if Katie did this with me. So I sent her a voice message and the rest is history, and then we just decided to work together full time.
Kacie: That’s amazing. You all have so many great things to offer. We’re obviously going to link everything up for anyone who’s listening, so you can check them out.
Why You Should Stop Asking Questions (And What To Do Instead)
Kacie: So, one thing that I really wanted to start off with is it’s something that I found was a big light bulb moment for me with communicating with my kids that I heard you say. You talked about how asking questions is not necessarily the best way to encourage your toddler to talk, which seems so strange. I feel like I wanna ask a question for them to give me an answer, so… Can you tell me more about that?
Wee Talkers: Yeah, so it is totally counter-intuitive, and a lot of parents are in that boat where they’re like, “Wait, I thought that’s how you get them to answer!” But the problem with that is that it’s kind of like, once you ask the question, the conversation can just stop. And a lot of times we ask the yes or no question like, “Oh, do you like your raspberries?” And then they’re like, “Mm-hmm.” And then that’s the end of it. Whereas if you comment about it, if you were to say like, “Oh wow, your raspberries, they look kind of juicy!” maybe they’ll comment back or notice something as well, so it becomes more of a two-way street.
And in the same regard, that also reduces the pressure, which we’re all about keeping communication light and positive and fun. And sometimes when they’re feeling quizzed or they need to have a certain answer, it kind of gives the opposite effect and makes them shut down or give the bare minimum, whereas if you’re commenting, you’re kind of inviting them into the conversation and it’s just less pressure-full.
Kacie: That’s so interesting, tell me more about that. Of that pressure of feeling… Quizzing. What kind of questions can lead them to feel that way or is it just any question in general?
Wee Talkers: I think specifically, parents will kind of tend to go to, “What color is it?” or, “What is it?” and it’s kind of like a little job interview for a toddler almost. They don’t wanna be like, “Okay, it’s quiz time.” So it’s not as fun, it’s not as engaging, and for a lot of our toddlers, they don’t have the words to kind of put all that back yet. So in the beginning, we’re doing a lot of modeling—like we’re talking. If we’re talking about mealtime, we’re talking about the food, or you know, different experiences and they’re hearing that. And that’s helping them understand the language. Before your child is going to say something, they have to first understand it, so in those moments—when your toddler is just starting to talk—we want to do a lot of modeling for them, which is just commenting and saying things about what they’re experiencing.
Kacie: That’s really helpful, especially for those parents who are in that phase where their toddler is not yet talking much and they’re kind of like, “It’s hard to talk to them when I don’t know how much they really understand!” But it sounds like they really are understanding more before they can actually say things back to you.
Wee Talkers: Yes, for sure. And they’re getting—those associations are being built as you talk to them—so they might not understand yet, they might not understand if it’s a new food or something that they’re not familiar with, maybe it’s a utensil that they’re not used to using, they might not have the vocabulary word for that yet. But the more that you talk about it and the more that you say that word, that repetition is gonna build a strong association and they’re gonna realize like, “Oh, this thing with the prongs is called a fork!” and now I understand the word! So it definitely doesn’t show itself very well, it’s kind of being built under the surface, but those things are gonna happen before you ever hear first words, so they’re pretty important.
Kacie: That’s helpful as a reframe for me too. So instead of—sometimes I might think if I ask them, “What is this utensil?” I think that’s gonna encourage them to talk, but you’re saying that you giving them that language and talking more about it is helping them to understand and build that up. And then if I’m quizzing them and then you say a fork and I’m like, “That’s right!” then that’s the end of the conversation.
Wee Talkers: Yeah, that’s it.
Kacie: So helpful.
Why Mealtimes Are Great for Encouraging Communication
Kacie: Now, why are mealtimes a great opportunity for you to get your toddler to start talking more?
Wee Talkers: Well, there are so many benefits of family mealtime, and there’s research to support this. I’m sure, Kacie, you could go on and on it about the different benefits as far as feeding your child goes. And from a speech and language perspective, it’s really an opportunity where people come together.
There are less distractions, you’re face-to-face, you’re all there together—Katie and I were saying how some days you don’t even have five, 10 minutes to really sit down and just focus on the people around you because you’re going here, you’re going there, or there’s a mess, you have to make the meal…there’s just so much going on. So it’s really that moment just to pause, you’re there together, less distraction, so we love that. And, there’s so much vocabulary exposure, whether you’re talking about your day or planning a future trip or something, or talking about a conversation—even your husband and you talking about a conversation that he had with a colleague or something—they’re just exposed to a wide variety of words that they might not otherwise hear if you didn’t have that time set aside to be together. So we love it for a lot of reasons.
Kacie: Yeah, I love that.
How Being Face-to-Face Helps Toddlers Talk At Mealtimes
Kacie: This is probably a weird question, but I’m the type of person who asks all the questions, so I’m wondering: You said being at a meal, being face-to-face if you sit at your kitchen counter and you’re all next to each other, does that still count or no? Because they’re not seeing your face.
Wee Talkers: It counts if you turn your body a little bit!
Kacie: So you can be in a row and kind of still turn and you still get their facial expressions. The reason that face-to-face matters is because you’re getting the full effect, you’re getting facial expressions and body language and tone and all of that. So when you’re sitting next to each other, you can still turn towards each other. I’m just thinking about when he’s at our kitchen counter, and I’m like do they not see me talking? They probably do. And oftentimes you’re standing on the other side of the kitchen counter while they’re sitting on the stool or something…
Wee Talkers: Right. You probably are face-to-face more than you even realize!
Mealtime Talking Tip: Not Sure What To Say? Use Your 5 Senses!
Kacie: Now, tell me something to help parents who are in the shoes that I used to be in, where my husband usually wasn’t home in time for dinner. And before Emelia was born or when she was a baby? It was just me and Teddy, and before he could really talk, I was like, “I’m not really sure how to make use of this time.” So what would you say about that?
Wee Talkers: Totally, that’s a really common…not problem, but it is a common situation. We like to tell parents to think of the five senses. When you’re unsure about what to talk about or feel a little bit uncomfortable, talk about what you see. Talk about what you hear, what you taste, what you smell, and what you’re touching. And then also vice versa for them, you can kind of narrate—be a sportscaster—to what they’re doing and talk about. Like, “Oh, you dipped your spoon in the yogurt, you wanna give a bite to Mom?”
And you can talk about what’s right in front of you, it’s also super beneficial for their language to talk about what’s tangible because they don’t have the ability to kind of recall the things that we can recall when they’re that little. So talking about the things that are right in front of them, that are present, are building those strong associations that we talked about.
Also, research tells us that in the first year of life, the number of words that a child hears is going to be the most beneficial for their language development. So talking about anything that feels authentic to you, even if it’s like, “After we’re done with dinner, we need to go pick up your prescription at Walgreens!”—anything that feels authentic—is helpful and important.
And then in the second year of life, it’s more the quality of the words that they hear that’s gonna move the needle. So being a little bit more diverse in your vocabulary, maybe instead of saying, “That’s a big peach!” you might say, “Wow, that peach is gigantic!” kind of changing up the vocabulary that you’re using can be helpful.
Kacie: Okay, that really helps. So when they’re still in that baby stage, you could even say, go through your day of what you guys did all day, just kind of talk through whatever, and it doesn’t have to be in a conversational way, it’s more like… Just you talking.
Quality Over Quantity (Why You Don’t Need To Talk All Day Long)
Wee Talkers: We want parents to know too, I think sometimes when they hear us speak like, “Oh my gosh, I have to talk all day like I’m exhausted just thinking about that!” and that is definitely not the case. It’s okay to be quiet, it’s okay to have pauses or for them to play on their own quietly. We’re just saying there are moments and opportunities when you have the capacity where you can kind of sprinkle some of this in.
Pro Tip: Be Silly & Have Fun!
We also love being silly and playful around mealtimes—we think you’re okay with this Kace—we were talking about like, “Ooooh, it’s a snake!” with noodles or something like, “Look at it slither!” And so we love how you talk about the division of responsibility, and you feel like this fits in so well with that because parents can kind of default to saying, “One more bite,” or “Do you like it?” or, “That’s a healthy food,” because we think we have to talk about food and eating. But we can talk about other things like, “I’m a dinosaur, I’m gonna crunch my food!” Not telling them to do it, just showing them and modeling, and that is a really fun, playful way to work on language as well.
There are also a lot of adjectives with food that are great for growing their vocabulary! Kids that have a stronger vocabulary do better when they start school. They need to have that strong base and know a lot of words, and it’s just easier for helping them learn to read and write and all the things once they get to kindergarten.
Kacie: Those are all great tips, and I completely agree about mealtime and being able to make it more silly and not focus on those things like, “Can you eat another bite?” because we really—with mealtime, you don’t have to be just saying, “I need you to eat this.” it can be about the whole experience, and so in my perspective as well, that’s something that is beneficial all around—not just from the speech perspective, but from getting them to have that healthy relationship with food too.
When To Use Visuals, Toys & Books During Mealtimes
Kacie: Now, if you’re struggling still to come up with some ideas of what to talk about with your toddler at mealtime, what other suggestions do you have?
Wee Talkers: Well, Katie was saying before, toddlers can understand and talk about things that are more tangible and right in front of them, and when there’s a visual component is really helpful. So we love placemats with pictures! We have a variety around here, just like an ocean scene or something they’re interested in. Maybe different kinds of trucks or maps or whatever your child is into. It’s kind of fun to have a few of those, and then it’s right there and it’s an easy way to kind of spark conversation in a fun way that takes the focus off of food, which we really like.
We know you have your breakfast picture cards, and we were like, “Oh, that’s so good!” from a language perspective as well because especially little ones that are having a challenge, learning to talk and communicate, adding in a multi-modal way of learning by showing them that visual—that’s going to make it easier for them to participate in the communication. So even if they can’t say, waffle, no worries. If they download your picture cards, that is going to help them be able to communicate and be more engaged and make choices on their own, giving them more independence, which, we want to show them that their communication has power! We don’t want things always just happening for them, we want to show them how when you point, when you make a sound, when you say a word…that’s affecting your environment.
Kacie: I love that so much, giving them that power to be able to express themselves! For anyone listening who doesn’t know about my breakfast choice cards, I’ll put a link to them in the show notes, but basically, I just made these cards that you can print out that have both the word for you, the adult, and the picture of the common breakfast foods—cereal and all of those things. So your toddler can choose between—you give them two or three choices—and they get to choose. So I love that unknowingly, you’re helping their language development. It’s a great way to have toddlers learn to communicate and assert their wants and needs, and, like you said, give them a small number of choices. It’s better for us as grown-ups for sure, and it’s really good for kids to have more of a narrow field of choices because it’s really overwhelming if you were to set out like seven choices.
I love knowing that the visual is really helpful too because I think some parents really hesitate to bring anything to the table because they worry about the idea of playing while eating or not focusing on the food. But in my experience, at least with feeding kids, it can actually help make them feel more comfortable at the table. And it sounds like from a speech and language communication perspective that that’s also helping them feel more comfortable to communicate with you as well.
Wee Talkers: Yeah, for sure. Reduces the pressure quite a bit.
Kacie: I love that. Now, if you are somebody who—I know Carly, you had said that it’s not like you have to be talking to them all day, so we don’t have to put the pressure on ourselves to narrate for the 10 entire minutes that we’re sitting at dinner and it’s okay to be quiet sometimes. But if you’re not somebody who naturally isn’t talkative, what do you suggest?
Wee Talkers: I would say just falling back on those things that Katie went over a little bit earlier, so talking about the five senses. If you keep that in your mind, you’ll always have something to say to your child. If you draw a link to what are they experiencing through their senses…boom! You have something to say. Reviewing past plans or future plans, describing the characteristics of food, the pretend play, and the picture placemats will all help.
Kacie: What about a little picture book at the meal… Yes or no?
Wee Talkers: Yeah, we actually think that a lot of little ones that don’t love book reading, like in a structured setting, do really well with reading a little book while they’re eating. If you can draw the experience of eating to the book that you’re reading, that’s even better. If you’re reading a book about animals or something, and you have like, I don’t know, some crackers on the tray, you might pretend to feed the animals. Like, “Oh, the dinosaur is eating, can we give the fish a bite? Your turn! Oh no. You don’t wanna bit. Okay, let’s feed the bear!” that type of low-pressure, fun, playful way of interacting at mealtime is great.
Kacie: I love that.
Help Your Little One Talk & Communicate More With Wee Talkers
Kacie: You guys have so many resources to help parents with all of this, so tell us a little bit about what parents can find from you.
Wee Talkers: Well, We have two main courses, so if you have a toddler, we have our TalkToddler course, which will teach you how to help your toddler talk and communicate more. Whether they’re not talking at all or they have some words, we teach you how to meet them right where they’re at and help them get to that next step. Then we also have our Songs and Stories membership for toddlers and pre-schoolers, and this is something new that kinda came about during the pandemic. Because we just wanted to help parents out as much as we could. We know it can be challenging to kind of fill those long days when you really want something quality for your child, but you can’t get out. And it’s our songs and stories membership, where they can watch storytime videos and songs and rhymes classes with us!
Kacie: So… I love that. What ages is that for?
Wee Talkers: We say two to four, but we have families with 18-month-olds as well, so it’s kind of just test it out and see. We have a free song and story video you can download if you wanna try it first.
Kacie: Okay, I’ll put that in the show notes. Can you watch that on their phone?
Wee Talkers: Yeah, so you can put it on your TV the same way you would near something from YouTube or something—a tablet or a phone, or on your laptop is how I do with my kid. I just seat them at the table with a laptop, but whatever way that you normally watch a video, you can watch it.
Kacie: I love that because it would be amazing if my kids were still younger to have that kind of resource where I know that what you’re doing is gonna be helpful for them, and it’s appropriate for them. That would be such a relief! And take some of the pressure off. I think sometimes I still feel guilty with screens for my kids, but knowing that it would be something that’s really helpful for their learning and their development is huge as meaningful screen time, and it kind of mirrors a storytime at a library, but it’s pre-recorded and you can just press play when you need 10 minutes, so… I love that. Is there anything else you wanna share with the lovely listeners before you go?
Wee Talkers: I would say if you’re wondering about your toddler’s communication, I know a lot of times you might see little ones at the park or something and be thinking, “Is my child talking as much as they should?” or wondering what to expect at the different ages, we’d recommend grabbing our milestone checklist. This way, you can see all the little skills that are building up—it’s so much more than just the number of words they’re saying—so with that, you’ll get the full picture and we’ll send you some other resources along with it as well. So I would say that might be helpful for you!
Kacie: I love that. We’ll add that in the show notes too. Well, thank you, Carly. Thank you, Katie. This is so helpful.
Wee Talkers: Thank you!