Most children will first develop the ability to articulate d and t sounds as toddlers–sometimes as young as 12 months. By the time your kiddo is four years old, they should be very comfortable producing the d and t sounds in most words.
It’s always exciting when your toddler learns a new sound and can start creating whole new words and expressions. Suddenly, communication is just a tiny bit clearer and easier–and you get a little more insight into your toddler’s emerging personality.
Both d and t sounds can be a little tricky, as they require tongue and jaw coordination. Your child might need a little bit of help–and that’s where parents can really lead the way. There are games and activities you can do together that help encourage your toddler to get the hang of the tongue elevating sounds d and t.
How Are D and T Sounds Made?
Both d and t sounds are made in a very similar fashion. The tip of the tongue is placed just behind the front teeth (a part of the mouth we call the alveolar ridge). This tongue placement is very similar to the tongue position infants and toddlers regularly use when drinking from a nipple (both bottle and breast).
While the tongue is resting on the alveolar ridge, tension builds up in the muscle. This is called lingual pressure. When released, the tongue creates a rush of air, creating sound. The only difference between the two is that the d sound employs the vocal cords. The t sound does not.
Developing d and t sounds in toddlers will require a bit of tongue dexterity. Most growing kids are able to handle it pretty easily. But some children may need a bit of help and encouragement. Usually, that’s because your toddler is just confused about where the tongue tip is supposed to go. That’s where you come in!
How to Help with D and T Sounds
Most toddlers will master the d and t sounds by the time they’re two years old. So, you can either see if they’ll produce the sound on their own, or you can try some soft touch approaches to help them practice skills.
- Start with syllables: Try encouraging your toddler to use d and t sounds in single syllables. Focus on the syllables “da” or “ta”. Begin with producing the sounds in isolation and then string them together. Don’t go too fast as your child is gaining lingual strength and coordination. They’ll need time to build muscles and coordinate movements.
- Move to small words: If your toddler is pretty comfortable with syllables, move to words such as: “daddy,” “dog,” “down,” “do,” and “top,” “take,” “hot,” “two” “toe,” for example.
- Next steps: Once small words are produced more consistently you can begin encouraging short phrases using these phonemes. For example, labeling “daddy” or the “dog” when your toddler sees them, giving your child a cracker for each hand and counting “one TWO,” counting their hands, feet, or eyes, or even modeling how to use the word “down” when you are putting your child down from your arms.
Okay–so the slow approach makes sense and you’re on board. Here are more activities designed to help your toddler get the hang of d and t sounds.
- The Cheerio Game: Help your toddler place a single Cheerio on the tip of their tongue. (You can even position the Cheerio for them for the first couple of rounds.) Then demonstrate how the tongue tip elevates upwards towards the alveolar ridge (the spot just behind your upper teeth). This will help give your child a sense of where their tongue tip should be when making d and t sounds and also provides opportunities to strengthen tongue muscles. Try holding the cheerio in place for 5-10 seconds. Don’t use your teeth as assistance in stabilizing the cheerio.
- Mealtime practice: For many families, meals provide a valuable social and bonding opportunity. You can practice D and T sounds by talking deliberately about what’s on the table around you during meals and snacks. Emphasize the T in “Taco Tuesday” or the D in “drink.” Let the food and beverages around you inspired and t-based words and phrases.
- Tactile cues: You can also use peanut butter to help your child identify the right spot for their tongue. Just put a dab of peanut butter on their alveolar ridge. When your kiddo finds the peanut butter, you know they’ve located the correct tongue position (and the stickiness of the peanut butter can help encourage that feeling of building up pressure in the tongue).
- Use verbal cues: Kids are amazing learners, and most toddlers pick up on language by watching and listening. So if your little one is having a bit of trouble, try exaggerating your own d and t sounds. Take those sounds slower and repeat them more often. Let your toddler pick up on those cues.
- Environmental sounds: One example is to make the sound of a clock: “t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t.” Another example would be to imitate the click sound that a chicken makes by producing tongue pops.
What to Do When Developing D and T Sounds in Toddlers Goes Slowly
It’s important to be patient, caring, and understanding as you’re working with your toddler. Sounds that require more precise coordination of the tongue, jaw, breath and vocal cords, like d and t, will develop as more oral motor coordination is achieved. You may begin to hear these sounds when the toddler is babbling but not yet to imitate or in true words.
For example, you may hear your child playing with the sequence “dadada” before they are able to label their dad or dog. Whatever environment you begin to notice your child producing these sounds, model them back and encourage more sound play.
If, for whatever reason, you’re trying all these games and activities and your toddler still isn’t picking up on the d and t sounds, you can talk to a professional. A speech language pathologist can problem solve what might be happening and determine whether speech therapy is warranted at this time.