If you’re the parent or caregiver of an older toddler and they’re not yet speaking, you likely have some questions running through your mind. Is this normal? How can I help them? Where do I even start?

The thought of our little ones not meeting age-expected milestones can be a bit overwhelming. But as the saying goes, knowledge is power. Knowing how to spot a communication delay and what to do next is key. Understanding the stages of speech and language development can also help relieve worry or confusion. So let’s walk through this together.

At what age should children say their first words?

Babies typically begin saying their first words around their first birthday. Every child is different, but this is a good rule of thumb to go by.

What you may not realize is that there are several language skills a child must achieve before they can begin talking. It’s highly uncommon for children to leapfrog through these language skills. You can think of language development like a staircase. Each step has to be taken before reaching the top!

Understanding these steps, or milestones, for children ages 0-12 months and 12-24 months can give you valuable insight into how your child is developing. If your toddler isn’t yet talking, there’s a good chance they may need to practice some of these earlier steps!

How many children have communication development delays?

It is estimated that almost 8% of children in the U.S. have a speech or swallowing delay.

A few years ago, a survey was completed assessing children’s development from ages 3 to 17. The data showed that of the 7.7% of children found to have a speech or swallowing delay:

  • 5% had speech problems, or issues related to articulation of speech sounds
  • 3.3% had language problems, or difficulty understanding and using words and sentences to communicate

Another way to frame it: About 1 in 12 children in the United States has a delay in communication abilities.

Common reasons some children are late talkers

There are many different reasons children may not begin talking on time. Here’s a look at some of them.

Hearing problems: Any hearing loss can have a direct impact on speech and language development. If a child isn’t able to hear all the sounds in their language, that will affect their ability to clearly hear words and understand their meaning. They also will have difficulty learning how to pronounce words. If your child is delayed in speech and language development, it’s vital to rule out any hearing loss early on.

Oral-motor issues: Some children have a tough time with oral-motor movement. This refers to the ability to coordinate their lips, tongue, and jaw for speech production. Sometimes a condition called childhood apraxia of speech causes these oral-motor difficulties.

Learning disabilities: A speech and language delay may exist by itself. It may also coexist with other learning disabilities. Some of these include autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, intellectual disabilities, and developmental disabilities.

Neurological problems: If a child has an underlying neurological problem, this can affect their ability to speak clearly. Cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and traumatic brain injury are a few examples of diagnoses that can impact speech abilities.

Environmental factors: Children need to play every day! They need to be stimulated by and engaged in different play activities in order to develop language skills. If a child isn’t talked to often, isn’t hearing language modeled, and doesn’t have opportunities to play, they may be more at risk for a communication delay. This is a great example of why cutting down on screen time is so important for speech and language development.

How Screen Time Impacts a Child’s Speech and Language Development
There is a big difference between active versus passive screen time, and understanding the distinction can help you introduce digital tools that are engaging and beneficial to your child’s communication development.

Developmental delay: Some children may not have other developmental delays, but for some reason they are delayed specifically in speech and language skills. Early intervention is essential to help them catch up.

How do you know when speech therapy is needed?

If a child is 15 months old and isn’t yet speaking, it’s a good idea to get a speech evaluation. So if your toddler is 2 or 3 years old and isn’t yet talking, it’s vital to go ahead and speak with their pediatrician, or with a speech-language pathologist. They will likely recommend a speech evaluation in order to assess your child’s current abilities.

Early intervention is so important in these situations. The longer a child goes without intervention, the more likely they are to fall further behind.

If you’re just now recognizing that your child may benefit from therapy, try not to worry about the time they’ve gone without treatment. We can only make decisions that affect the here and now. Be proud that you’re taking the time to learn how to help your child! Being your child’s advocate is an important role, and who better to fill that role than you? Taking this first step on their communication journey will be life-changing for your child, thanks to you.

The Importance of Early Speech Intervention
It’s common for children to need extra help meeting crucial speech and language milestones. That’s why it’s so important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to know how to spot the signs of a delay and seek early intervention.

How can you improve your child’s speech at home?

You may be wondering what else you can do alongside speech therapy. Good news: There is a lot you can practice with your toddler at home! And it doesn’t require any big changes or expensive devices–just simple, everyday interactions. Let’s review them together.

Get down to their level and play! Many people don’t realize that play is such a huge part of a child’s development. Did you know that play mimics communication? When we play with someone, one person takes a turn, then the other person, and so on. These back-and-forth actions are similar to communication.

Taking the time to play with your child can make a big difference in their speech and language development! If you’re not sure where to start, try these fun and practical playtime ideas.

Using Play to Promote Speech & Language Development
Play is an integral part of learning in children. It helps them explore and understand their environment, foster language development, problem solve, acquire social skills, and so much more!

Make time to read together every day. Spending time reading with your little one can have amazing benefits for their communication skills! Children who are read one book a day are exposed to 78,000 extra words per year. How incredible is that?

Reading together allows your child to learn more words, understand how sentences are structured, and even increase their phonological awareness skills. This refers to a child’s ability to recognize the sounds that make up words and their meanings. These speech and language abilities are linked to a child’s academic abilities as they grow older. Plus, reading together helps strengthen the bond you have with your child. So make storytime part of your daily routine!

Practice imitation skills. Imitation abilities are also important for a child’s speech and language development. If your child isn’t yet mimicking any sounds, then spend some time practicing animal sounds, or the sounds of trains and cars. They tend to be fun and motivating for toddlers to copy!

Once your child is imitating these sounds, you can move onto speech sounds such as vowels and consonants–think simple babbles like “ma-ma.” As your child improves in this area, you can move on to simple word imitation.

If you’ve tried all of this and your child is still struggling with verbal imitation, try gesture imitation. Children have to learn to copy gestures and movements before moving on to speech. These can be simple gestures such as waving, blowing kisses, and clapping hands.

Model language for your child. One of the most simple and effective things you can do for your kiddo is to model language for them. It’s easy: Just talk to them often, even if they don’t respond to you. Children learn so much from the people they spend the most time with. Your child can learn words, the meaning of words, and how to pronounce them simply just by watching and listening to what you do!

Remember, as your child’s caregiver and advocate, you play an incredibly important role in their life. As a speech-language pathologist, I’m honored to walk alongside families going through situations that may be similar to yours. We are always here to be a source of information and support to help your child along their communication journey!