For new parents, the joy of hearing their child’s first words is one of the many wonders of a baby’s early life. However, there may be nothing as disconcerting to parents, or to the family as a whole, when a toddler is delayed in reaching that all important milestone.
Oftentimes, well-meaning friends and family members will try to reassure parents into not taking action, saying things like ‘It’s alright, he’s just taking his time’ or ‘Cousin Sue’s daughter didn’t talk until she was four, and now she has a Ph.D.’
But for Lauren Sharkey, speech therapist at Kutest Kids Early Intervention, parents have more empowering options than just biding their time, and hoping for a positive outcome.
“A commonly asked question I get is: ‘How do I seek help if my child isn’t using words by the age of one?’” says Sharkey.
Understanding Normal Speech Development
For parents, it can be challenging to determine if their child is simply immature in using their communication abilities, or if they possess a distinct delay or language disability that requires professional intervention.
Children develop language skills at differing rhythms. However, if a child hasn’t attained a language milestone by a significant margin, it is considered a language delay.
A language delay may be characterized by difficulty:
- Saying first words or learning new words
- Stringing words together to form sentences
- Establishing vocabulary
- Understanding words or sentences
Language delays have also been linked to conditions like autism, Down syndrome or a hearing impairment, but they can also exist on their own.
It’s important be aware of the difference between a language delay, and a speech disability. With a speech disability, the child may possess relatively good language and understanding skills; however, they may have trouble pronouncing the sound in words, making their expression difficult to understand.
If a child has a language delay that doesn’t go away, it might be a sign of a language disability. A language disability is identified when a child shows a marked delay in their ability to talk and to understand what is being said to them.
The following warning signs may be indicators of a language delay:
- If by nine months, a baby fails to coo or babble consistently
- If by twelve months, a child hasn’t started gesturing or pointing to things they want, and hasn’t started to imitate sounds
- If by sixteen months, a child hasn’t uttered their first words, and doesn’t possess a vocabulary of five to ten words
- If by twenty-four months, a child hasn’t spoken in two-word phrases (such as “more cake”)
- If by thirty-six months, a toddler is using only one-syllable words without final consonants (ie: “do” for dog); they may also show great frustration in not being understood
Learning the difference between a language delay and a speech or language disability is important for parents; that’s why getting the appraisal from your pediatrician is a critical first step.
“Pediatricians can recommend that you seek early intervention,” says Sharkey. “Or you can do it on your own by contacting the county. And you should probably want to see the child receive help between about twelve and eighteen months, if they aren’t using any words.”
Sometimes a pediatrician’s response will still not be satisfactory for parents, who may feel deep down that something is still not right with their child. In that case, parents can contact their county’s early intervention office.
Early intervention programs are implemented through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). All states receive grants from the federal government, and eligible families can obtain services for free or at very minimal cost.
The Benefits of Not Waiting
If after a visit to your state’s early intervention agency, it’s determined that your toddler will grow out of the delay, then you can rest easy. However, if a problem is diagnosed, your child will gain enormously through early intervention treatment. You’ll also be introduced to additional resources that can benefit and assist your child.
Undiagnosed disabilities are known to contribute to weak academic performance, low self-esteem and other emotional problems. The sooner a disorder is detected and a strategy implemented to support the child to overcome it, the better off they, and the whole family, will be in the short and long term.