Every child develops on their own timeline. This is true when learning to walk, potty training, that first tooth, and their speech abilities.

With speech and communication, it’s common for children to need extra help meeting crucial milestones expected for their age. That’s why it’s so important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to know how to spot the early signs of a speech delay.

The earlier a child receives intervention, the quicker they can make progress. Early intervention can also decrease the severity of their speech delay over time as well.

In this post we review how to identify some early warning signs of a speech-language delay, the importance of early intervention, and the benefits your child will receive from early services.

What are the Signs of a Speech Delay?

While it may seem counterintuitive at first, many signs of a speech delay are actually observable before a child even says their first words. Monitoring these nonverbal areas of communication can be used to determine if a child is on track to eventually speak on time. Each of the nonverbal examples below are linked to a child’s eventual language development:

  • Joint attention (a person’s ability to focus on a shared object or even with another individual)
  • Eye contact
  • Play skills
  • The ability to vocalize back and forth through babbling or other utterances

You may be wondering at what point your child should meet these preverbal and verbal communication skills. Check out the helpful chart below broken down by age. You may even see some skills listed you were not aware are tied to speech and language development!

3-6 months

  • Babbles and makes various sounds
  • Turns head toward a sound
  • Mouths toys
  • First smile
  • Eye contact should be consistent by 6 months

6-9 months

  • Waves “bye-bye”
  • Begins to babble repeated sounds like, “mama,” “dada,” or “baba”
  • Responds to simple activities like “peek-a-boo”

9-12 months

  • Gives objects upon request
  • Says “mama” or “dada” meaningfully
  • Begins imitating some animal sounds or environmental sounds
  • Begins to understand the word “no”
  • Says first meaningful word
  • Responds to name
  • Seeks attention from others
  • Joint attention should emerge around 9 months

12-18 months

  • Uses toys/objects appropriately (toy phone, toy car, etc.)
  • Follows 1 step directions
  • Sits and attends to a book
  • Uses some words independently
  • Identifies body parts
  • Can play in a task with another person for 1-2 minutes
  • Demonstrates functional play, and using 2 objects together in play

18-24 months

  • Points to common objects
  • Understands at least 50 words
  • Asks for “more”
  • Imitates words readily
  • Uses at least 5-10 words spontaneously

2 Years Old

  • Follows 2 step directions
  • Asks for help or assistance
  • Uses 2 word phrases
  • Plays independently and watches other children

3 Years Old

  • Identifies parts of an object (wheel on the car)
  • Relays daily experiences
  • Identifies complex body parts (wrist, knee, ankle, eyebrow, etc.)
  • Speaks in sentences
  • Speech is 80% intelligible

4 Years old

  • Answers “what” “when” and “where”
  • Plays appropriately with other kids
  • Understands concepts like “long” and “short”, and other descriptive words

Speech Skills Build Upon Each Other

When it comes to starting speech intervention, one important thing to note is that all speech skills build on one another in a sequential order, kind of like a staircase.

A child typically does not make it up each “stair” without first accomplishing the ones prior. Here’s a simple example: before a child begins using sentences, they first need to use single words for a time period. If a child is 2 years old and is not using single words, they are already about 1 year behind. If, for example, your child does not receive speech intervention for another year, and they haven’t caught up in this area on their own, then they will be about 2 years behind (short sentences should begin around 2.5 - 3 years old).

You can save a lot of time, frustration, and anxiety if you receive professional intervention earlier rather than later, reducing the lag your child experiences in reaching these important milestones.

Speech-Language Abilities Correlate to Educational Success

One thing that many people don’t know is that strong speech and language skills can be tied to educational success.

When a child begins to grow familiar with words and increases their receptive language skills, they are also learning to listen to the similarities and differences between the structure and sounds of words. This correlates to phonemic awareness skills. Early phonemic awareness (the recognition of speech sounds) directly correlates to early reading success. We want children to be able to identify words that rhyme, and even the sounds that make up words, as they get older and closer to reading age.

If a child struggles with sound recognition, this could be a sign that reading may be a challenge for them later on. Check out this helpful article that discusses the correlation between communication development and literacy skills.

The Benefits of Working with a Speech Therapist

Here’s another huge perk when it comes to speech services. If your child has a speech therapist that sees them consistently, the therapist will really know your child’s communication strengths and weaknesses inside and out.

This is so helpful when it comes to setting appropriate goals for your child. A licensed speech therapist is the best route to go when seeking help for your child’s language development.

Additionally, your speech therapist will be able to provide specific, weekly homework that targets exactly what your child needs to practice. At the end of each session, a speech therapist should provide an overview of how your child is progressing. The speech therapist should then give you some ideas on how to incorporate their goals into the home environment. Practice at home is extremely important, and helps your child to maintain progress made between sessions. This way, your child isn’t just practicing their speech and language skills for 30-60 minutes a week, but around the clock which is required to make substantial progress.

If you don’t have a speech therapist for your child right now but want to get a jump start on some things you can do at home, check out Expressable Academy.  This is our online bank of free speech lessons, created by our amazing team of therapists here at Expressable!  

Communicative Success Increases Self-Esteem

When children are clear and confident communicators, this greatly helps increase their self-esteem. Think about it - what if you were unable to communicate to others your needs and wants? What if others had to constantly say, “What?” or ask you to repeat what you said every time you spoke? This would be extremely frustrating. It would likely even make you shy away from speaking to others, avoiding social situations all together, and lead to feelings of embarrassment or frustration.

The same is true for kids. Strong communication skills help them to express basic wants and needs, and form relationships with family and peers. That’s why addressing these issues with professional help early on, before they exacerbate over time, is so important!