As a speech therapist, you can imagine this question comes up frequently. Many parents and caregivers are understandably concerned about their child’s speech and language development. After all, these fundamental communication skills are so essential for healthy childhood development.
So when should you consider starting speech therapy?
Well, the short answer is that if your child is struggling to reach age-appropriate milestones, the earlier speech therapy starts the better.
Think about how much a child changes in the first few years of life. They not only grow physically, but they develop cognitively and emotionally.
The stages of language development are universal amongst children. Language emerges from the moment they’re born, beginning with crying to express their needs, then cooing and babbling, and eventually their first words emerge. This is when children rapidly develop foundational communication skills and begin to participate in meaningful interactions with their family and peers, whether it is through sounds, gestures, or words.
If your child is struggling with language, it can put them at risk of falling further behind, and potentially impact their academic success as well as emotional and social well-being. That’s why it’s so important to speak with your pediatrician or a speech therapist to see whether your child is on track or may need some additional support.
Why is speech therapy for children so important?
Speech therapy is about enabling children to express their wants and needs through language, helping them to navigate the world around them and effectively interact with others.
While some parents may believe that taking a “wait and see” approach is best, research indicates that early intervention for speech and language sets kids up for communication success. It can help promote early literacy skills, improve a child’s cognitive abilities like problem-solving and attention, and improve academic achievement once they begin school.
Communication is also linked to behavior. In fact, unwanted behaviors often emerge from a child’s inability to communicate. Giving them the tools and resources to better express themselves can go a long way in helping them develop healthy and productive relationships.
Addressing concerns earlier can reduce any issues that might emerge due to delays in speech and language. Early intervention for speech and language has shown to reduce the need for special education later in a child’s life, and can save a family costs of therapeutic interventions in the long run.
How to determine if your child needs speech therapy
As mentioned, language skills begin developing from the moment your child is born - and long before they’ve said those memorable first words.
It’s important to remain aware and proactive about how your child’s language is progressing, as many parents wait too long before starting intervention. The links below outline what age-appropriate milestones a typically developing child should meet, and what signs to look for that can indicate they may need professional help:
- Speech and language milestones for 1 year olds (0-12 months)
- Speech and language milestones for 2 year olds (12-24 months)
- Speech and language milestones for 3 year olds (24-36 months)
A few causes for concern for early language learners include:
- Lack of responsiveness
- Lack of awareness to their environment
- Cry does not change if tired, hungry, or in pain
- Cannot focus or is easily over-stimulated
- Lacks awareness of sound, not focusing towards the source of the sound or speaker
- Limited awareness of people and objects in the environment
- Does not appear to enjoy the social rewards of interaction
- Lacks connection with adults, such as eye contact, reciprocal eye gaze, vocal turn-taking, and reciprocal social games
- Doesn't babble or their babbling contains few or no consonants
- Is easily upset by sounds that are not upsetting to others
- Does not clearly request for objects while focusing on them
- No reduplicative babbling
- Lacks response to language and no use of communicative gestures, such as waving
As you can see, a lot of vital speech and language skills emerge in that first year. The demands of language increase in your child’s second year, which is typically when children begin to say their first true words, verbally request objects, put two words together, and use at least 50 words to request, comment, and label. If your child is not meeting these milestones, it’s a good idea to speak with a speech therapist.
Other signs to look for is how your child is producing specific speech sounds.
During the first few years of life, children begin experimenting with sounds and using them in words. While we typically do not begin to treat speech sound disorders until the age of 3, it’s important to note that trouble producing accurate speech sounds may be an indication of a speech disorder. Be on the lookout for whether your child:
- Says /p/ /b/ /m/ /h/ and /w/ incorrectly in words (1-2 years)
- Says /k/ /g/ /f/ /t/ /d/ and /n/ incorrectly in words (2-3 years)
- Produces speech that is unclear, even to familiar people (2-3 years)
How can a speech therapist help?
If your child has difficulty climbing into their chair, you’d help them up. Seeking help with speech and language is similar - it’s about giving your child necessary support to step up their skills so they don’t have to play “catch up” later on.
By seeking professional help early, your child has a better chance of meeting essential early developmental milestones.
A speech-language pathologist (SLP), more commonly referred to as a speech therapist, are licensed and qualified experts that work with children and families to prevent, evaluate, diagnoses, and treat a range of issues, from speech, language, social communication, cognitive communication, voice, feeding and swallowing, and more.
Every child is different. Working with you and your family, your speech therapist will provide a comprehensive evaluation of your child’s needs and develop an individualized treatment plan based on their clinical observations. This treatment plan will consist of short- and long-term goals tailored to your child’s specific needs.
During each session, your therapist may use fun and interactive games and activities that help your child make progress towards these goals.
Why parents are key to their child’s speech therapy success?
Depending on your child’s severity of need and care plan, your speech therapist will recommend a frequency of visits. They may suggest attending speech therapy once a week, twice a week, or something else.
Now, imagine for a second that you were trying to learn a new skill. Let’s say it’s tennis or an instrument. How much progress could you possibly make if you were only attending classes for 30 or 60 minutes a week, with no practice happening at home on your own time?
This is all to say, what happens during the speech therapy appointment itself is just as important as what happens at home. Progress happens when these important skills are practiced throughout the week, reinforced by the person your child loves and spends time with the most - you!
Research has consistently demonstrated that the more parents are active participants in their child’s speech therapy, the more progress children make towards their goals. That’s why it’s so important to find a speech therapist that can help you incorporate language-building techniques into your child’s daily routines!
This isn’t hard and it doesn’t require hours and hours of dedicated practice. It’s simply about making small but purposeful changes in how you already interact with your child - whether it’s eating breakfast together or preparing for bedtime - and using those opportunities to promote language growth.
Online speech therapy meets parents where they are
As we discussed, parents play such a vitally important role in their child’s communication success. And the role of your speech therapist, especially if you have a young child, should be about empowering and educating you on how to integrate communication strategies into your child’s everyday life.
With that said, it can be hard for parents to develop strong relationships with their speech therapist and learn from them directly. This can be challenging in a school-based setting, and difficult if you simply drop your child off at a therapy clinic.
That’s why online speech therapy is so effective in helping children achieve their goals. It can take pressure off parents to travel to appointments or adapt a child’s schedule to accommodate availability. With a click of the button, you and your child can speak directly with your speech therapist at a time that’s convenient for the entire family. This all happens in your home environment where children are often most comfortable and motivated to learn.
An online speech therapist would never expect a toddler to sit in front of a screen for 30 minutes and pay attention. It’s no secret that squirmy kiddos can have trouble paying attention for extended periods of time, regardless if that’s on a computer or working with a therapist in an in-person setting. However, receiving speech therapy virtually can allow you to “be in the room” with your child and therapist. You're both learning from your therapist, and incorporating your child’s favorite household toys and activities into therapy to promote skill building. Afterwards, you’ll be better prepared to carry over these new techniques, lessons, cues, and corrections into your normal daily interactions with your child, giving them the best shot at success!