My child isn’t talking yet…should I be worried?

Do you have a child that isn’t talking yet? Are you becoming concerned?

Does the following sound familiar?

“I’ve chatted to a few other Mom’s and Gran’s on social media, and they say it’ll come, don’t worry, give them time. Uncle so and so didn’t talk until he was 3, and boys talk late.”

“I took him to the GP who said wait until X years old, give him time.”

Then you think to jump on to “Dr Google” – surely they’ll know the right answer! In doing so, you’ll discover thousands of similar posts from other parents around the globe looking for advice on their late talking toddler. 

Your gut reaction is to look for professional advice, but many others are telling you to “wait and see”.

The “wait and see” and “all children develop at their own pace” approach are more than likely due to misconceptions about typical language development milestones. And while children develop at their own rate, there are typical milestones that should be achieved. When milestones are not reached, this is the time for concern. While many children may catch up on their own, some persist with problems with language and reading throughout their childhood and schooling.

Might your child be a “late talker”? If you are worried about your child’s talking, it’s important to acknowledge the feeling and take immediate action.

In this month’s speech-language therapy blog, we aim to address the following questions using recent and dependable research:

  • Who is a “Late Talker”?
  • Important Language Milestones
  • Is late talking common and do children grow out of it?
  • When should I see a Speech-Language Therapist
  • What can I do at home to help my late talker?

Who is a “Late Talker”?

“Late talkers” are toddlers who have typical comprehension but a limited number of spoken words or limited expression.

Comprehension is what the child can understand. E.g. Without pointing  ‘please fetch your boots in the cupboard, we are going out to jump in muddy puddles’, and they go and get the boots.

Expression is what they say and the words they use. Importantly not how they say these words though, therefore if they call a ball “boh” we will still consider that a word.

[Note in today’s blog, we are not talking about children with neuro-developmental or physical delays.  E.g. Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, or other speech-language diagnoses, Apraxia of Speech (motor planning disorder) or children with delays in understanding and producing language (Language Delay).]

When is a child considered a Late Talker?

Children aged between 18 and 35 months old, who understand what you say to them but have limited expressive vocabulary. This indicates they don’t have many words in their expressive vocabulary, and they don’t combine two or more words.

All other areas of development need to be within the normal developmental range. This includes motor skills like crawling and walking as well as social, thinking and playing skills.

Important Language Milestones

So how does the delay look? According to The Hanen Centre in Canada (Canadian specialists in early childhood intervention and language delay)

  • By 18 months your child should use at least 20 words, including different types of words, such as nouns (“mommy”, “biscuit”), verbs (“eat”, “go”), prepositions (“up”, “down”), adjectives (“cold”, “tired”), and social words (“hi”, “bye”).
  • By 24 months, your child should use at least 100 words and combine two words. These word combinations should be created by the child and not be memorised “chunks,” e.g. ‘bye-bye’ or ‘all gone’ but instead generated entirely on their own. E.g.’ where’s mommy’? or ‘doggy jump’!

Is late talking common and do children grow out of it?

Research varies but approximately 10% to 15% of children at the age of 2 present with delayed onset and development of expressive language.

Research by Hawa & Spanoudis. (2014) showed that 70-80% of late talkers would catch up to their peers. Although these numbers sound promising, what about the remaining 20% to 30% who won’t grow out of it? These children will have persistent difficulties throughout their life, relating to all things around language and literacy.  How will you know if your child is one of the 30%, especially if we “wait and see”.

Children at greatest risk of being in the 30% and not growing out of it will include; those with a family history of speech-language delays, boys, premature babies (born before 37 weeks) and low birth weight babies (85% of optimal birth weight).

When should I see a Speech-Language Therapist?

We believe early intervention is vital! Especially to intercept the 20-30% of children who will never catch up to their peers without assistance.If your child hasn’t reached the above milestones, please don’t wait! Rather see a Speech Therapist even if only to put your mind at rest. Act on your instinct, don’t listen to the “wait and see” crowd. You, as the parent are always right.

What can I do at home to help my late talker?

Get a referral to a speech therapist with experience in Early Childhood Intervention (ECI).

Book an appointment with a Paediatric Audiologist to ensure your child’s hearing is normal. Persistent ear infections and hearing loss may be the cause and must be addressed as soon as possible.

Make one-to-one time every day for you and your child. Spend at least 15-30 minutes daily playing with your child. Get on to the floor down to their level, follow their lead and play games or with whatever toys they love the most. As simplistic as possible, become your child’s internal dialogue and describe everything that is going on. What are they looking at, what are they eating and playing. Children learn to associate meaning to words quicker and easier when we name and respond to the current item or action with which they are busy. Rather than if we attempt to direct their attention elsewhere. Play turn-taking games like hide and seek and sing simple nursery rhymes with predictable endings like “round and round the garden” that end with “tickly under there”. 

Start a communication diary. Record all the words your child uses daily, as well as the other ways they choose to communicate, including gestures like nodding and shaking their head and pointing. Also, highlight the events and time of day the communication occurs. E.g.’ bye-bye’ when Dad leaves to go to work. Arm up gesture for ‘uppie’!

Look at books together (every day). Make it a daily routine to look at books together. In our house, my 2-year-old and I read before nap and bedtimes and then incidentally during our 30 min playtime. Reading to your child is vital to their speech-language development. It’s likely that at this stage they may not be too interested in stories just yet. So instead look at any books together, highlight all the things you know may interest your child and persist with brightly coloured, pop up and touchy-feely books. The volume of interaction and quality linguistic input your child will get from you during these moments is insurmountable.

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