As parents we want to make sure that everything is perfectly normal and on track when it comes to our children’s development. Every time we visit the pediatrician, or even casually speak with other parents, we are constantly hearing the following questions: Is your child crawling? Are they eating table foods? Are they walking? Are they talking? All of these milestones, and the inevitable questions that surround them, can make a parent’s head spin - especially if a child is delayed in one of these areas.
A child's first word should happen sometime around their one year birthday. Verbal skills gradually build from here. If your child is 15 months or older, and has not said their first word or is struggling to communicate, this can be a sign of a language delay. This realization can be a cause of concern for many parents, and lead to feelings of frustration and stress. However, it is always better to identify any signs of a communication delay earlier on so you can start taking the appropriate steps to promote their language skills.
The term “non-verbal” is sometimes used when referring to children who are not talking yet. In this article we're going to cover what being non-verbal means, how it impacts children, and what steps to take to help your child.
What Does the Term “Non-Verbal” Mean?
A child who is non-verbal does not use any words for communicative purposes. They may vocalize different sounds in response to situations or people, but they do not use true words to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. As mentioned previously, the first word should occur around a child’s first birthday. Children may begin naming people, such as “Mama” or “Dada,” naming toys or pictures in books, or using function words such as, “more,” “please,” or “help.”
As children grow their verbalizations, they will develop their ability to label and use words for functional purposes. Once the first word happens, it should be a steady growth to a much expansive and expressive vocabulary.
If your child is still non-verbal, it's important to note that this doesn't mean they aren't communicating. Children who are non-verbal may rely on gestures, such as pointing or reaching, to show caregivers what they need. Even the tone of their vocalizations can be a big clue to what they are wanting to say. Vocalizations typically have a pleasant or unpleasant tone, and young children use them to help caregivers understand what they may generally need.
However, verbal communication is ideal and what helps children express their needs the easiest. Make sure to learn how your child is currently communicating in order to decrease any frustration your child may be feeling when trying to express their needs. It's also vital that you respond to their communication attempts and praise them for it! Helping children understand the benefit of communication will encourage them to communicate even more.
Here’s an example - if your child learns to point to their cup and you respond by handing it to them, they are essentially rewarded for that communication. The more children practice communication skills - and experience the rewards - the more they will attempt to communicate.
The key is to make sure that you as the parent are helping prompt your child to a more difficult level of communication. Once your child is doing well with gesturing, then it is time to move on to prompting for verbalizations. These could be single sounds or babbling sounds that are similar to the target word. After that is mastered, you should expect that your child will begin imitating and independently using real words to express their thoughts.
Steps to Take When Seeking Help
If your child is non-verbal, it can be difficult to know when it's time to take action and speak to a professional. It's even more challenging to know what next steps you should take! Let’s review some items to consider in order to decide the best plan of action for your child.
For children who are non-verbal and not progressing in language development, it is best to speak with a pediatrician or a speech therapist. Below are some signs it may be time to speak to a professional:
- Your child is 15 months or older and has not spoken their first meaningful word
- Your child’s progress in language development seems to have halted and you do not notice improvements over a period of 1 month
- Your child’s language development has regressed
- Your child experiences frequent frustration in daily life when trying to communicate with you or others
How to find a professional:
Pediatricians are trained to screen a child’s communication skills during well-child check-ups. You should talk with your child’s doctor at their next check-up, or call their office to proactively schedule a visit if they don't have a check up in the near-future. Remember, it is much better to begin treatment for a speech or language delay sooner rather than later! This articles talks more about the importance of early speech intervention.
Hopefully your pediatrician will offer the support needed for your child. If they feel speech therapy is necessary, they will write a script for speech therapy and likely may have some recommendations for speech therapists.
One important thing to remember is that while pediatricians are extremely knowledgeable, a speech therapist is the one professional who can formally test and determine if a speech delay is present.
Some pediatricians may encourage a “wait and see” approach. It’s true that some children may just need a little more time. But if a child is truly delayed in speech, then waiting may do more harm than good. Speech development is an ongoing process and any delay in one skill will negatively impact the ability to acquire subsequent skills.
Don’t be afraid to call and speak directly to a speech therapist near you if you would like a second opinion. Listen to your gut - you know your child best!
Before calling, prepare any questions you have ahead of time, and make notes about how your child is currently communicating at that time. The speech therapist will need this information in order to determine if a formal speech evaluation is warranted.
How to Encourage Language Growth at Home
Regardless of whether or not your seeking professional help from a speech therapist, there are many ways you can promote language development and growth from your home.
Helping a child learn to talk requires lots of patience, opportunities to practice, and encouragement from caregivers. Try these tips when helping your child become more verbal.
- Prompt your child to communicate using one skill level above where they currently are in development.
- If they cry to communicate wants and needs, help them learn to gesture and point to what they need
- If they are able to use gestures but do not vocalize, model the first consonant of the word you are wanting your child to say
- If they are able to use consonants or babbling sounds, model the actual word your child should imitate
- Once your child is able to imitate a word from you, pause and wait expectantly when your child is attempting to request something. This will help them learn to use words spontaneously.
- Use daily situations you and your child are already participating in to practice language growth. Children learn best in daily routines and play activities.
- Know that it takes a lot of time and repetition of tasks for children who are delayed in language growth to acquire more words. Don’t overwhelm your child with stressful practice. Keep it lighthearted and fun! Check out this article to read all about how play routines can help your child learn to communicate better, all while having fun!