The moment a little one is born, parents await with bated breath for all sorts of “firsts.” These include their first smile, their first “roll over,” their first steps, and, of course, their first words. All “firsts” are special, but the day your child says “I love you” for the first time is unforgettable. But parenthood also involves waiting for these “firsts,” and sometimes, it can be anxiety-inducing if you feel your child is taking longer than “normal” to reach milestones.
It may feel isolating if you suspect your child is experiencing any developmental delay, but remember you and your child are not alone. For example, a speech and language delay is something parents may become aware of when they observe their child in a group setting with other children. This can be tricky because all children are different and comparisons are not always accurate. Speech and language delays are not uncommon, and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends education and early intervention to support a child’s development.
If you suspect your child has a speech and language delay, how can you help your child? When is it considered a “delay” and when is it your child merely developing at their own pace? To help answer these common questions, we interviewed certified Speech-Language Pathologist Vanessa Garcia. Vanessa has been a certified speech-language pathologist for eight years and has worked in the field for 15 years. She is also a loving mother to two beautiful girls and happens to be my own beautifully talented sister. Below are Vanessa’s guidance and expertise on how to best support your child if they have any speech and language delay.
Speech and Language Delays Defined
Educating yourself on what a speech and language delay is can equip you and your child with the resources they need to thrive. A speech and language delay means that a child is not meeting a communication milestone or expectation at any given age.
The CDC recently updated their communication milestones.“These changes are intended to represent what 75% of children have acquired by a certain age. Milestones previously were reported for children in the 50th percentile—that is, what 50% of children have acquired by this age,” Vanessa said.
“[Parents and caregivers should] keep in mind that there is a range and variability for what is considered average or what most children are able to do at a given age,” Vanessa said. “Historically, children vary with how quickly they master language and speech development.”
Vanessa recommended that parents speak to their child’s pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist if they are concerned about any speech and language delays.
The following are speech milestone examples Vanessa shared to provide more context.
- At 12 months, a child is expected to say one word.
- At 24 months, a child should be able to say about 50 words and combine words (e.g. “mommy car”).
- At 36 months, a child is expected to build simple 3+ word sentences (e.g. “Give me some”).
In terms of intelligibility (clarity of speech):
- Between 19-24 months, a child should be 25%-50% intelligible to an unfamiliar listener.
- Between 2-3 years old, a child should be 50%-75% intelligible to an unfamiliar listener.
- Between 4-5 years old, a child should be close to 75%-90% intelligible to an unfamiliar listener, regardless of a few articulation errors present in their speech.
Examples of Some Common Speech and Language Delays
The terminology used when explaining speech and language developmental milestones can sound like another language altogether for some. Below are some examples Vanessa provided of common speech and language delays to best inform you when speaking to an expert.
- Receptive Language Delay: “A child may have difficulty understanding what others say. For example, following directions like ‘bring me your shoes’ or answering questions like ‘what is your name?’ and pointing to objects when named ‘show me the red car.’”
- Expressive Language Delay: “A child may have difficulty expressing wants and needs using language. For example, your child is not saying words by 18 months of age [or] your child is not combining words by age 2 like ‘daddy shoe’ or producing short sentences by age 3 like ‘I want milk.’”
- Speech Delay: “A child may use words and phrases to express ideas but may have difficulty producing sounds and they may be hard to understand. For example, deleting final consonant sounds in words like ‘ba’ for ‘bat’ or reducing a cluster of consonants to a single consonant like ‘side’ for ‘slide.’”
Vanessa shared that as children develop, they will produce multiple sound errors as they acquire speech as a way to simplify the complexity and coordination of their speech muscles (lips, tongue, teeth, palate, jaw) to produce clear speech. These errors are called phonological processes and are developmentally appropriate until a certain age.
As children learn and grow, so does their speech as it begins to sound more like adult speech.“[However], if your child continues to present with multiple phonological errors and continues to be difficult to understand, consult with a speech-language pathologist,” she said.
Diagnosing Speech and Language Delays
The CDC’s developmental milestones page is an informative resource for all parents regardless of if they suspect any type of developmental delay. “Being aware of age ranges allows parents to identify possible warning signs. Knowledge is power,” Vanessa said.
By consulting with your pediatrician, they can refer you to a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or you can also find one on your own. “An SLP can conduct an evaluation to determine your child’s strengths and needs in speech and language,” she said. “Some medical professionals have adopted the ‘wait-and-see’ approach, but as a speech-language pathologist, we recommend ‘check-and-see’ [instead]. In other words, request an evaluation to determine how well your child understands, speaks, and communicates.”
…some medical professionals have adopted the ‘wait-and-see’ approach, but as a speech-language pathologist, we recommend ‘check-and-see’ [instead].
If the evaluation determines that your child indeed has a speech and language delay, they can qualify for early intervention services (for children up to 3 years of age) and special education services through a school district (for children ages 3 years and older). Vanessa also reminded parents, “No one knows your child better than you and you are your child’s best advocate.”
How can parents support their child’s speech and language development?
Parents can be truly instrumental in supporting their child’s speech and language development. Be proactive because early intervention is key and can positively impact a child’s development long term. “[Parents and caregivers] can work in conjunction with an SLP and practice skills learned in therapy,” Vanessa said. Together, they can help children overcome speech and language delays.
Vanessa also highly encourages parents to practice these daily tips to promote communication at home:
- Talk to your child!
- Narrate everyday routines (e.g. washing dishes, bath time, getting dressed, etc.).
- Read books daily. Choose books that are age appropriate or simplify stories by describing what you see instead of reading each word.
- Make books interactive (e.g. knock on doors, make cars “beep, beep,” make animal sounds).
- Sing songs.
- Set aside 15 minutes of uninterrupted play time with your child. Model language as you play (e.g. “The boy is thirsty. He is drinking juice. Gulp, gulp, gulp.”).
- Make games out of simple routines (e.g. racing to clean up toys, making inanimate objects talk).
- Play “people” games, which are games where the emphasis is on people and their interaction (e.g. play peekaboo, interactive songs like Patty Cake and Ring Around the Rosie, etc.).
- Simplify language or use age-appropriate language. Avoid baby talk (e.g. For a toddler, while putting a doll to sleep, say, “Shhh, go to sleep. The baby is sleeping.”).
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat yourself. Children do not learn with one experience or exposure. Repeat yourself and emphasize certain words you want them to learn—not only nouns, but verbs as well.
Additional Speech and Language Resources
In addition to familiarizing yourself with the CDC’s developmental milestones, Vanessa recommended the following resources to get a holistic understanding of speech and language developmental support and information. “Knowing how to speak to your child at home and having reasonable expectations can be instrumental in their speech and language development,” Vanessa said.
Vanessa also recommended some Instagram accounts parents can follow. “[These accounts] provide ideas for parents to use in conjunction with speech and language therapy in order to promote … skills at home and during everyday activities,” she said.
- @speechsisters (SLP)
- @raisinglittletalkers (SLP)
- @laleo.bilingual.therapy (Bilingual SLP)
- @gracefulexpression.slp (SLP)
- @healthiest_baby (Pediatrician)
In addition, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) has an extensive library of information for SLPs, educators, and parents, including the “Activities to Encourage Speech and Language Development” page.