Developmental milestones can be a source of both excitement and worry. When your child reaches a milestone, it’s a reason to celebrate. But if you watch him struggle through certain areas of development while his peers progress, it’s normal to feel anxious. There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you’re already in the worrying phase of his speech development. Delayed first words can create a lot of anxiety for parents and caregivers who are worriedly waiting to hear their child speak.
But, before your worry turns into panic, it’s important to know that about 15% of toddlers are late talkers, and most of them will overcome their speech delays and catch up with their peers over time. Experts like Maxine K. Orringer, a speech-language pathologist and coordinator at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, will tell parents that they don’t need to be fearful of speech delays, but they should be cautious. If there is a problem, identifying it early is best simply because it’ll be easier to solve. The human brain is built for improving this kind of developmental issue in early childhood.
How Do Experts Define a Late Talker?
On average, a toddler will learn to say at least 50 words or more by the time he’s 2 years old (this varies widely from child to child), and he’ll be able to combine those words to make short phrases such as “bye-bye Momma” or “no more juice”. A late talker has mastered 50 words or less and can’t yet combine words together. It’s important to note that when we refer to late talkers in this article, we’re not talking about children with physical or developmental disorders such as Autism or Cerebral Palsy. Late talkers are toddlers that are developing at an average rate in other areas, such as cognitive and motor skills, but have limited speech for their age.
What Are Risk Factors to Watch for with Late Talkers?
While many late talkers naturally catch up on their own, others do not. It’s important to be able to identify risk factors to help you predict if your child needs special attention. Here is a list of signs to watch out for:
- Hearing issues or a history of ear infections
- Little babbling or cooing as an infant
- Doesn’t imitate words
- Family history of speech delay
- Doesn’t use gestures or only uses a few gestures to communicate
- Uses mostly nouns and few verbs
- Has a limited number of consonant sounds
- Difficulty playing with peers due to lack of ability to communicate
- Acquires a new word and then loses it
Instead of waiting to see if this a problem that will solve itself, experts suggest speaking to your pediatrician or a pediatric speech-language pathologist if your child is showing (3) or more of the above risk factors. If you haven’t seen any of these warning signs, but you still notice delays in your toddler’s speech and language skills, you can look at two important concepts of language development: receptive and expressive language.
Receptive language refers to a little one’s ability to receive and understand messages through sounds, gestures, and speech. For example, when you offer him more milk by saying the word or pointing to the milk container, he clearly shows that he understands by returning a sound, gesture, or word. Expressive language refers to using sounds, speech, or gestures to communicate. If your child is successfully using gestures and can easily receive and understand messages, but isn’t talking much on his own, it may be due to a delay in expressive vocabulary.
What Can You Do to Help Your Child Develop Speech?
There are many things you can do to help foster your toddler’s speech development. A good rule of thumb is to talk, talk, talk to him as much as possible! Our BabySparks program offers a comprehensive library of activities to support speech development through taking, singing, telling stories, reading, and much more.
You can also find helpful information about nurturing speech in these articles:
Supporting Expressive Language Skills During Baby & Toddler-Hood
Babble Back: How Meaningful Responses to Babbling Boost Language Skills
The Evolution of Speech: 12-24 Months
The “30 Million Word Gap” & What it Means for You
Common Speech and Language Disorders & How to Spot Them
The Importance of Early Intervention