If you were an ambassador to China but only spoke Greek, trust me, you’d have problems! Likewise, talking with your toddler will be 100 times easier once you learn the simple steps to translate your words into their “native” language: Toddler-ese.

I discovered Toddler-ese by accident. Like most pediatricians, I dealt with 20 tantrums a day from toddlers who hated being at the doctor’s. Then I began to notice that when I echoed a bit of the child’s upset feelings back—using a very simple style of language—I could usually convert their crying to laughter (or at least cooperation) in minutes…or less!

The Basics of Talking to Toddlers:

  • Toddler-ese is your toddler’s “native tongue.”

  • Think of toddlers as “cave kids” who existed before the dawn of civilization. Remember those Tarzan movies…and the simple language used? “Come, Cheetah, come!” “No, Jane, no eat.” You get the idea.

  • You can translate anything into Toddler-ese with three simple steps: short phrases, repetition and mirroring a bit of your child’s feelings (using your tone of voice and gestures).

  • The more you practice Toddler-ese, the better you get at it.

  • Amazingly, all of us automatically use Toddler-ese with our young children…when they’re happy. But we often forget to use it when they’re upset.

How to Connect With Your Toddler

Toddler-ese is better than magic and nothing short of amazing—it’s real and it works! It helps children feel cared about and understood. And when you combine Toddler-ese with the Fast-Food Rule, you will be able to prevent up to 90% of tantrums before they even happen and you’ll settle more than 50% of the meltdowns that do occur…in seconds!

Sound too good to be true? Fortunately, it’s not. In fact, most parents who try Toddler-ese usually see major improvements in their child’s behavior in just days and feel better connected with their child.

How to Speak to Toddlers: It’s as Easy as 1, 2, 3

Toddler-ese turns adult language into simple messages that our cave-kids understand…even during a frenzy. You can translate anything you want to say into Toddler-ese with just three simple techniques:

  • Short phrases

  • Repetition

  • Mirroring—a bit—of your child’s feelings (with your tone of voice and gestures)

Step 1: Short Phrases

The first principle of Toddler-ese is to use very short phrases. The more upset your toddler is, the simpler your words need to be.

For young tots, or very angry older kids, start with one- to two-word phrases (using just the key words). For example, for an upset 2-year-old:

Instead of:

  • “I know you feel mad about it.”
  • “Did that doggie scare you?”
  • “You really want that candy, don’t you?”


  • “You’re mad! Mad! Mad!”
  •  “Scared! Scared! Big doggie!”
  •  “Candy! Candy! You want it…now!”

      These “bite-size” bits of lingo are perfect for a child’s stressed-out brain. (Of course, as your tot recovers, you will stretch your phrases back to normal.)

      Step 2: Repetition is Key for Communicating with Toddlers

      Repetition is just as important as short phrases. Words whiz by your toddler’s brain too fast for them to handle when they're in an emotional tangle. And the more upset they get, the less receptive they'll seem. That’s why you’ll need to repeat the same short phrases three to eight times…just to get your upset toddler’s attention. Then, it helps to say it a few more times, to convince them you really understand.

      Does this sound excessive? It’s not. In fact, many parents fail to soothe their child merely because they think acknowledging their child’s feelings just one time is enough. But when emotions slam shut the door of your child’s mind, you have to “knock” many times just for them to hear you and “let you in.”

      Here’s how to do it: Imagine it’s raining, and your 2-year-old, Sam, is desperate to go splashing in the mud. He’s crying at the door, struggling to reach the knob. In response, you:

      • Get down on his level and point to the door.

      • Say: “You want…you want…you want outside! Outside now! Sammy says, ‘Go…go…go!’”

      If he keeps fussing, repeat your words a few more times. Soon he’ll turn to you, as if to say, Huh? You talkin’ to me?

      As his crying lessens, stretch your sentences back to normal: “Sammy says, ‘Outside now!’ You really want to go out! You say, ‘Let’s go play, Mommy!’”

      If you have noticed his feelings accurately, he’ll turn to you, look you right in the eyes and think to himself: Bingo! That’s exactly what I want. Mom “gets it”!

      As he calms a bit more, it becomes your turn to give a message (explanation, distraction, etc.): “But no, sweetheart, noooo. It’s raining! Raining! Wet…yucky! Come with me! Let’s have a pillow fight. Come fun! It’s fun!”

      Step 3: Mirror a Bit of Your Toddler’s Intensity in Your Tone and Gestures

      The first two parts of Toddler-ese are a big help, but the third is the magic key! Your little one may not understand all your words, but they're brilliant at reading your voice and face (a right-brain specialty). That’s why mirroring a bit of your child’s emotions with your tone of voice, facial expression and body language lets you connect perfectly with their sweet spot!

      • Voice. Use more oomph than normal, but speak at a lower volume than your child is using. Reflect some of the fear, frustration and other emotions you hear in their tone of voice, at about a third of their intensity. (If your child is very shy or sensitive, you will probably have to use a bit less intensity.) Gradually bring your voice back to normal as they begin to calm.

      • Face. Be expressive. Raise your eyebrows, shake your head, open your eyes, furrow your brow and purse your lips.

      • Body language. Use lots of gestures. Wag a finger, wave your hands, point, shrug, stomp the ground.

      Like Anything, Talking to Your Toddler Takes Practice!

      It can take a little time to get the hang of Toddler-ese. So, if you’re just learning and still feel self-conscious talking like that, no worries––just start out slowly. Use it first for the little up and downs. Once you get more comfortable with it, gradually start using it for more turbulent upsets. I guarantee that you will love using it.

      About Dr. Harvey Karp

      Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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      Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.