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Is My Child Talking Enough For Their Age?

02 March 2023

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When you first have a child, it’s normal to compare your infant or toddler to others and question if they’re on track with their weight, physical development, speech and language development and behavioral development.

As curious as parents can be, young children develop at their own pace. That said, parents still wonder, become nervous or even start to get concerned if their baby isn’t performing a certain act like other children around their age. 

When it comes to speech and language, questions about whether your child is meeting speech milestones is a common topic among parents – and for pediatricians, too, at well-visit checkups. These concerns are warranted, as 10 percent of children struggle when it comes to mastering speech. Use this blog as a guide to determine if your child is speaking enough for their age and when you should become concerned about a possible delay. Knowing what’s normal and what isn’t can help put your mind at ease.

Speech and language development

From birth until the time your child turns 3 years old, they experience the most important and intricate developmental period in terms of acquiring speech and language skills that they will use for the rest of their life.

When parents discuss their children talking, they tend to use the words “speech” and “language” interchangeably. They are different, though. In short, speech is how you say sounds and words. Language is how you use those sounds and words to communicate.

Speech includes voice (using the vocal folds to make sounds), articulation (using the mouth, lips and tongue to make sounds) and fluency (rhythm of speech). Language includes speaking, understanding, reading and writing. Here is an easy way to remember it: Speech is the verbal expression of language.

Therefore, a speech delay or disorder is an issue with how your child pronounces or articulates a word, whereas a language delay or disorder is what your child says (expresses) or understands (receives) in the form of words and sentences.

Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders have milestones that help set guidelines for the appropriate rate of speech and language development in children. Children who don’t meet these milestones at an expected rate are considered to have a delay. While some infants and toddlers catch up on their own, many still need interventions to guide them.

What is a late talker?

The word late talker can be used to describe a toddler who shows a delay in vocabulary and expressive language anywhere between the ages of 18 months and 30 months. Late talkers usually leave parents puzzled because their children typically have normal cognition, sensory and motor development, thinking skills, social skills and receptive language. The only thing missing is their ability to consistently speak.

A child who doesn’t use 10 to 20 words by 18 to 20 months or a child who uses fewer than 50 to 100 words, including no two-word combinations, by 21 to 30 months would fall under the late talker category.

Anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of late talkers catch up to their peers by the time they enter school. These children are considered late bloomers. However, 20 to 30 percent of late talkers don’t improve and will ultimately need intervention from a speech language pathologist.

While late bloomers may catch up, they’re still at risk of having reading and writing difficulties in school. That’s why it’s important to have a speech and language evaluation conducted by a speech language pathologist. 

It’s unclear what causes toddlers to become late talkers, but research points to a family history of language delays, prematurity (born less than 37 weeks), low birth weight (less than 85 percent of optimal weight) and gender (males are more likely to be late talkers).

Children who become late talkers may not always display signs or symptoms, but research from the University of Miami found toddlers who ended up becoming persistent late talkers knew fewer shape-based nouns at 16 months of age. In other words, late talkers at 16 months old who caught up by 28 months old (defined as late bloomers) used more shape-based nouns such as spoon, ball or table.

Speech milestones

When it comes to late talkers and speech and language delays, it’s important to have a general idea of what your child should be able to say or communicate at various ages.
In general, babies don’t start producing their first words until their first birthday. While they may not be saying words during their first 12 months, their brain is hard at work developing communication skills.

Here is an overview on what to pay attention to during the first year.

  • By three months, your infant will begin to coo, smile and notice the sound of your voice.
  • By six months, your baby will start to laugh and babble by using consonants and vowels. 
  • By nine months, you can expect your baby to string together two syllable combinations, such as mama or dada, and start to point and reach toward objects. 

By 12 months, your toddler’s receptive language will continue to develop, as they should be able to understand more than 25 words. They will also understand instructions such as “come here.” In terms of expressive language, they will begin to imitate sounds and produce variegated babbling, which is mixing different sounds such as “ba de da.”

The older your child gets, the more leeway they receive in terms of milestones. In other words, milestones are grouped together in three-month increments during the first year (newborn to three months, three to six months, etc.). Once they reach a year old, the milestone gap extends to six-month increments (12 to 18 months, 18 to 24 months). By 2 years old, milestones are grouped by a full 12 months. 

Why does this matter? Some children may say their first word by 12 months, others may not until 15 months. The range of milestones allows for flexibility because each child is different.

12 to 15 months

  • Varied babbling sounds (p, b, m, d or n)
  • Ability to imitate sounds or words
  • Can say a word other than mama or dada, such as “ball” or “uh oh”

15 to 18 months

  • Can speak 10 to 20 words
  • Uses consonant sounds (t, d, n, w and h)
  • Uses words to communicate what they want (milk, up, eat, all done)

18 to 24 months

  • Uses 20 words by 18 months
  • Uses 50 words by 24 months
  • Uses k, g, t, d, f sounds
  • Says 2 to 3 word phrases (all gone, more milk, bye bye dada)
  • Can ask short questions (where’s my ball?)
  • Can identify body parts and animals in books

3 years old

  • Can say 250 to 500 words, possibly even 1,000
  • People can understand 75 percent of their speech
  • Can use 2 to 3 words together in a sentence
  • Uses the word “why”
  • Understands “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” questions
  • Can use words like “in” or “on”
  • Doesn’t repeat many words
  • Can describe activities such as what they did at daycare

4 years old

  • People can understand almost 100 percent of their speech
  • Is detailed with words and stories
  • Starts to use pronounces (I, me)
  • Uses rhyming and plural words
  • Uses four or more words together in a sentence
  • Can say some letters and numbers

When should you begin to worry?

If you start to worry about your child missing speech milestones, here is a guide of what to look for at specific ages.

Talk to a pediatrician if your child has difficulty speaking by 18 months. If the problem persists by the time they’re 3 years old, chances are they’re suffering from a speech or language disorder and need more than simply watching and waiting.

  • By 3 to 6 months: Not babbling and doesn’t make sounds or facial expressions.
  • By 1 year: Makes only a few sounds and doesn’t use words or gestures
  • By 18 months: Says only a few words
  • By 2 years: Doesn’t say two-word phrases and says less than 50 words
  • By 3 years: Can’t speak in short sentences
  • By 4 years: Is hard to understand and has difficulty speaking in sentences that make sense

What can you do to help?

In general, it always helps to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to your child’s speech and language development.

Even if your child does display any of these signs, don’t panic. An evaluation by a trainer speech therapist can determine if they’re simply a late bloomer or if they have a delay. You should also let your pediatrician know, as they may suggest a hearing test to rule out any issues with hearing loss.

In the meantime, there are several things you can do at home to help your child develop their speech and language.

For starters, read to your child every day. Reading just five books to your child every day exposes them to about 1.4 million more words by kindergarten than children who aren’t read to, according to a study from Ohio State University. Even just one book a day will expose your child to 290,000 more words by age 5.

Reading helps children learn new words, but it also exposes them to the idea of storytelling and the concept of a beginning, a middle and an end. When reading to infants, try board books with single images and large text. This will help keep them engaged and avoid overloading them with too much information. As they progress to the toddler phase, touch and feel books help young children learn textures and shapes as they read.

Talking to your baby about everyday situations is also a great way to introduce them to new words and sounds. When getting them dressed, explain what you’re doing. For example, you may say, “Let’s wear pants. The pants are red.” Once they begin to show signs of producing their first words, encourage them by responding to their actions. For example, if they point out a cat and say “cat” respond to them by saying, “Yes, a cat, the cat says meow!” 

Even if you diligently work with your child, there is still a chance they may be a late talker or late bloomer. Don’t wait to act if you begin to notice missed milestones. Many parents think their children will catch up on their own, but they may need assistance from a speech therapist. Talk to your pediatrician to learn more about options for speech therapy services.

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