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Why isn’t my son responding to his name?

My son only responds to "baby". When I call him by his name it’s a hit or miss.

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Dear Is This Normal,

My son most of the time doesn’t respond when I call him by his name. He only responds to “baby”. When I call him by his name it’s a hit or miss . He refers to himself as baby. He’s 20 months old. Is this normal?

Signed,
No Name

Dear No Name,

So, I have two kids, 9 and nearly 6. Nowhere near being babies, either one of them! But the youngest, well, she’s the baby still. And we still call her The Baby from time to time. “I have to register The Baby for kindergarten!”, or “The Baby needs a bath tonight before bed.” It’s a hard habit to break, but she’s the last one, so she’ll sort of always be The Baby, you know? It’s a term of endearment that’s stuck around for years, even though she’s a walking, talking, school-going kid now. I feel like this is a common thing in families with more than one child, and I’m wondering if that might be the case here.

Do you have older children? Is your 20-month old the baby of the family, even if he isn’t technically a baby anymore? Was “Baby” a term of endearment you used regularly with him from infancy? It sounds like your son is used to hearing “Baby” more than his actual name, which could be why he’s less likely to respond to his name when called. And also why he refers to himself as “Baby”. At this age, toddlers are developing language, speech, and identity markers at a pretty rapid pace. But they’re still a little iffy on actually using the proper pronouns and language when referring to themselves. That’s why toddlers often refer to themselves in the third person, rather than “I”, or “me”. They haven’t heard enough real-world uses of the correct pronouns to be able to use them comfortably or properly, so they’ll call themselves by their first name, or in the case of your son, by the name he hears the most.

You didn’t mention anything about his speech or other areas of concern in terms of his language or hearing development. If you do have concerns, such as him not talking very minimally or not at all, not responding to any verbal cues or commands, or possible auditory problems, my advice is to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician so he can be evaluated. Every child develops at their own pace, and it’s hard to know if your kid is on track, but delayed language and speech development can be an early indicator of several spectrum disorders, and early intervention is incredibly important.

But going off the information you included in your letter, it sounds to me like your little guy is responding to (and referring to himself by) the name he hears the most. He responds to his name some of the time, so he knows his name! But he’s used to being called “Baby”, so that’s what he responds to the most. Try to limit your use of “Baby” when referring to your son, and correct him when he calls himself “Baby”. Use his first name exclusively, and anytime he calls himself Baby, respond back with his name and tell him, “Your name is XXXX”. Get him into the habit of using his own name more when he talks about himself, and make sure that it’s what he hears the most! Toddlers respond well to repetitive language and speech patterns, so the more you call him by his name and correct him when he doesn’t use his own name, the sooner it’ll click in his developing brain. And make sure there’s consistency in his environments – his name should be used at home, at relatives’ homes, at daycare, anywhere he’s spoken to or about. He’ll start to get the hang of it once it’s all he hears consistently!

What’s In a Name,

Is This Normal

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