Is It a Big Deal if My Toddler Doesn’t Respond to Their Name?
One of the earliest social behaviors our babies learn is to respond to their name. Did you know babies usually start responding to their name around 8-10 months? Did you know your child should consistently be doing this by their first birthday?
It is a very big deal if your child isn’t responding to their name! I don’t say that lightly or to scare you, but this is one of THE earliest signs that your child may have a developmental delay and needs to be seen by their pediatrician and early intervention program.
Not responding to name being called is also an early sign of autism.
If you notice your child is not responding to their name (or very rarely) by their first birthday, it’s extremely important that you bring this up to your child’s pediatrician and call your local early intervention program.
Because, while it’s a big deal if your child isn’t responding to their name, it’s a skill that can be taught and we can make improvements!
Note: If you are concerned that your child is not be responding to their name, make sure to rule out a hearing loss by scheduling an appointment with your child’s pediatrician or audiologist. We always need to rule out a possible medical issue first.
Why Responding to Their Name is So Important
Learning to respond to their name is a critical skill because it is the foundation of so many other skills. As an early childhood special education teacher, when I don’t see my kids responding to their name, I see delays in these other areas as well:
- Comprehension (understanding) of language
- Expressive language (gestures, signs, sounds, and words)
- Social interactions with adults and kids
- Self-regulation and safety
As you can see, this one skill has a huge impact on development! Let’s look at each of these skills and how your child not responding to their name has an impact.
What do you usually do when someone calls your name?
You look up from what you are doing and turn towards the person who called you.
That person is trying to get your attention.
They need to tell us something. They need to give us a direction. They want to start a conversation. They want to have an interaction with us.
We have to shift our attention away from what we were doing and attend to someone else.
When toddlers, two-year-olds, and preschoolers are not consistently doing this, parents need to be concerned. This is another early sign of autism.
Comprehension of Language
When a child is not responding to their name, generally there is also a delay with their comprehension (understanding of language).
We call our child’s name to give them information. A lot of information.
We are pointing to daddy coming into the room. We want them to notice that big thing in the air and learn that it’s called an airplane.
We are calling their name to give them a direction.
We are calling their name to draw their attention to something that we want them to see so we can label it for them.
When a child is not responding to their name and not shifting their attention to us, he/she is not learning that this fluffy thing you are pointing at is called a dog.
Toddlers should be understanding a few directions (no, come here, give it to me) as well as the names of familiar objects and people (bottle, mom, dad, tummy, eyes, banana, etc). By 24 months, children are understanding more complex directions, body parts, and a variety of nouns and simple action words.
Children learn this information by consistently responding when their name is called and looking at what someone is showing them.
This is what we want as parents, right? We want the words!
This is also usually the first clue to parents that something is wrong. We know that around our child’s first birthday, he/she should have a few simple words.
But if our child isn’t responding when he/she hears their name, there’s almost always a delay in their use of not only words, but also babbling, gestures, and sounds (which come before words).
As I mentioned above, if your child isn’t responding to their name then he isn’t learning the information you’re wanting to give him.
If your daughter doesn’t understand the names of people in her home, body parts, foods, names of toys, etc., then she isn’t going to say them either.
Early social interactions are critical for our babies, toddlers, two-year-olds, and preschoolers.
During daily activities, our little ones learn how to play with toys, problem solve, understand words and directions, use gestures and words to communicate, turn taking, and improve their attention span and ability to regulate their behavior.
All of these skills hinge on our child’s ability to respond to their name so we have their attention and can begin and maintain those early interactions.
Self-Regulation and Safety
We’ve all been there — you’re yelling your child’s name as he runs across the parking lot or as she’s about to touch something hot.
Responding to your name being called in these types of situations is vital for safety!
We need our child to stop and look at us so we can give them information that will protect them and keep them safe.
Help is Available!
Every state has an early intervention program that can help assess your child’s early social skills. They will provide testing and services, if your child qualifies for them. They will help you learn specific strategies to help you teach your child how to respond to their name.
Call your local health department or school district to find the program that serves your area.
While you’re waiting to talk to your pediatrician or get started with early intervention, use the following strategies to help your child start responding when you call his/her name.
7 Strategies to Teach Your Child to Respond to Their Name
The wonderful thing about all of these strategies is that we (the adults) do them!
We change our behavior or the environment to teach our child to respond to their name.
These are my favorite strategies because you can easily fit them into what you’re already doing during the day — with a few minor changes.
1. Decrease the number of times you use their name.
Yes — you read that correctly!
When we use their name too often, it fades into the background and doesn’t have any meaning.
Limit the number of times you use their name during the day — especially with demands or when telling them “no.”
Keep using their name during play activities, but really limit how much you use it in other situations.
Make sure everyone else at home is doing this well.
2. Decrease distractions
You need to teach your child how to look at you when you call him, therefore, you need to limit what else is happening around him.
Teach him in a quiet room. Turn off the TV. Have siblings go somewhere else for a few minutes. Get rid of the bins of toys.
You can increase the likelihood that your child will respond to you when there are fewer distractions!
Teach first in a structured, quiet setting before moving on to teaching them in a more natural space (living room, toy room, etc).
3. Be close and in front
Besides decreasing distractions, we also need to be close.
Don’t shout their name across the room.
Don’t call her name when you’re behind her.
We want to do everything we can to increase the likelihood she’ll look at us.
Be close and be in front.
You can place your child in their high chair and sit right in front of her.
You can have your son sit on your bed and you are in front of him and slightly lower.
Make it easy for your child to respond when you call their name by being right in their line of sight!
4. Change your tone of voice
Many toddlers, two-year-old and preschoolers love music!
If you notice your child responds well to music, try calling their name in a sing-song tone of voice.
Instead of saying “Emma” in your usual tone of voice, try “Ehhhh mmmaaaa.”
5. Change the volume of your voice
Try using louder and softer volumes when you call your child (again, be close and in front).
Does your child respond if you whisper?
Does a louder volume get a better response?
6. Remove name from commands
If my husband only called my name when he wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do, I wouldn’t pay attention to him.
If he only called my name when I needed to stop doing something I liked, I wouldn’t pay attention to him.
While you are teaching your child to respond to their name, do not attach their name to commands and directions!
I know. This one is hard!
We don’t want our child to ignore his name because he thinks only bad things happen when his name is called.
“Miles, stop jumping.”
“Riley, time for diaper change.”
“Tyler, turn off your iPAD.”
Instead, use his name during play and other fun activities.
“You’re swinging high, Miles.”
“Riley, you have a big dinosaur.”
“Tyler, I see a cat on your iPAD.”
7. Attach their name to getting their favorite thing
Does your daughter love bubbles more than anything?
Would your son eat fruit snacks all day long?
Could your child swing for an hour?
GREAT! Gather several of those super awesome things (edibles and activities you don’t have to take away work best).
Remember, reduce distractions and be in front!
Once your child is looking away from you, call their name clearly.
As soon as he looks towards you, give him the favorite thing and say something like “You looked at me! Awesome!”
We want to pair the reward with some social praise. You can hug, squeeze, tickle, or just use a phrase like “You looked at me! You’re so great!”
Wait for your child to look away again and repeat the process.
Repeat it several times or until your child starts to get antsy.
End on a positive note and do it again later that day or tomorrow.
Keep those favorite items only available during teaching!! We want them to stay super awesome and special to our kids!
You Can Teach Your Child to Respond to Their Name
When our child is not responding to their name, they are missing out on a lot of learning opportunities.
They are also missing out on social interactions.
They are not responding to cues that will keep them safe.
But when you follow the strategies listed above, you can improve your child’s ability to respond to their name.
When we decrease the demands attached to their name and become a fun play partner, we can teach our child that when they respond good things happen!
Which of these strategies worked for you? Did something else you tried have great success?
Send me a message and let me know!
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