Few things excite a new parent more than their child’s first words. And few things can stress a parent out as much as when those words don’t come when you think they ought to.
There’s a wide range of “normal” when it comes to children and speech development, which can be reassuring or can leave parents wondering where in that range their own child falls — especially if the words aren’t coming as expected.
"There are a variety of misconceptions around children's early language development,” says speech-language pathologist Nicole Magaldi, chair of the Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences at William Paterson University.
"I can't tell you how many times I have heard parents say, 'My mother said I didn't start speaking until I was three years old and I turned out fine.' This may be true, but it fuels the misconception that a significant delay is nothing to worry about."
There are several possible causes for speech delays in young children: neurological causes, behavioural difficulties, and lack of access to appropriate stimuli are among them, and multiple factors could be at play. Because the reasons behind speech delays can be complicated, it’s important to see the appropriate professionals to diagnose the cause and begin appropriate intervention at an early age.
Here are eleven things parents of infants and toddlers should know about speech development in young children, including how to encourage it, what to watch for, and when to seek outside help for delays.
Remember the range is wide: Children should begin speaking at about one year of age, Magaldi says. But the range of normal within that recommendation is quite wide. “Many children begin talking a little earlier, 10 to 12 months, and some a little later, 12 to 15 months, which is all considered perfectly 'normal,’” she says.
Build foundational skills: Your baby doesn’t start walking before figuring out skills like rolling, sitting, scooting, crawling, or standing; in the same way, talking needs to be preceded by babbling, smiling, engaging, pointing, gestures, and imitation. "When you see a child demonstrating these foundational skills, you know they are on the cusp of beginning to talk,” Magaldi says.
Talk to your child: "The most important thing to do to encourage a child to talk is to talk to them and engage with them,” Magaldi says. "Children learn to talk by hearing others doing it, so exposing a child to language is hugely important.” Talking to your child, reading, or singing to them are all great ways to encourage those first words.
Be a life narrator: If you aren’t sure how to talk to your non-verbal child, try simply narrating what you’re doing to them. "Narrate your actions to your baby as you are doing them,” says Jann Fujimoto, a speech-language pathologist with SpeechWorks. “It's time to put on your socks, now put your left foot in your shoe, next put your right foot in.”
Watch for words: "The most salient sign of a delay in language is when a child does not begin to use single words at the time they are expected,” Magaldi says. If a child hasn’t started using single words by the end of 15 months, an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist should be recommended, she says.
"Narrate your actions to your baby as you are doing them. 'It's time to put on your socks, now put your left foot in your shoe, next put your right foot in.'"
Know what a word is: Some parents think that a baby must say a word perfectly for it to count as a proper word. But what matters is that your child identifies that vocalization with a specific thing. "If a baby says ‘ba' for bottle and doesn't say ‘ba' for anything else, then ‘ba' can be counted as a word,” Fujimoto says.
Look for word combinations: Children will begin to string words together as toddlers, which is another important step in their language development. "At 18 months to two years, a child should begin to string together two words,” Fujimoto says. "'More milk' or 'Dada up' might be an example of a two-word combination."
Why not wait?: Some pediatricians recommend waiting until age two before referring a child for a speech evaluation, but there is no reason to wait if there are concerns, Magaldi says. "If a parent is concerned that their young child has not begun speaking yet or is not speaking as much as his/her peers, they should seek a complete evaluation,” she says.
Some pediatricians recommend waiting until age two before referring a child for a speech evaluation, but there is no reason to wait if there are concerns.
Don’t pay too much heed to stereotypes: While on average girls begin to speak on the earlier end of the normal range and boys begin to speak on the later end, that isn’t a hard and fast rule, Fujimoto says. "While boys do tend to speak later than girls, parents of boys still need to know what the normal speech-language developmental milestones are so they don't let 'boys talk later than girls' rationale prevent them from being concerned about their son's development,” she says.
Preventing future problems: Seeing a speech-language pathologist now can save your child from more serious issues later on. "There is much research to indicate that some children tend to begin talking later but catch up to their peers soon after,” Magaldi says. "However, many children who begin talking late do not catch up and have lifelong difficulties with language. So, it's important to consult a speech-language pathologist when a parent suspects something is wrong."
Don’t discount hearing: Sometimes speech delays in young children are the result of undiagnosed hearing problems. Having your child’s hearing checked is an important part of finding out what is behind delayed speech.
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