Because each child develops at his or her own unique pace, speech delays can sometimes be difficult to detect during the initial phases. In most cases, delays are not indicative of a more serious or persistent problem. However, parents should discuss any concerns with the child’s pediatrician in order to rule out developmental delays, hearing problems and other physical conditions that can create obstacles to speech. By keeping healthcare professionals apprised of the child’s overall development in this critical area, parents can ensure that children are given the treatment and therapy to address the delay quickly during these early formative years.
Signs to look for
The first symptoms of problems with hearing, understanding, or communicating effectively can appear in babies as young as twelve months of age. Early treatment can be crucial in addressing these problems, so any of these symptoms should be reported to and discussed with the child’s pediatrician to determine if treatment is required.
Twelve to fifteen months
Babies should be making a variety of verbal sounds, including repeated consonant sounds. Most babies begin imitating adult speech at this time and may babble with intonations similar to those used by other members of the family. Babies typically begin using words to communicate at some time between twelve and fifteen months; words like ball, cookie, and other nouns usually come first. Babies at fifteen months should understand and respond to simple directions and typically use verbalizations to refer to family members including “mama,” “dada,” and other names.
Eighteen to twenty-four months
With increased mobility comes an increased drive to communicate with others. Toddlers typically pick up between twenty and fifty words during these six months; some may learn and use far more. During this period, toddlers should be engaging in imaginative, imitative play and babbling or talking intently with toys, pets, and other people in the household. Toddlers should also be able to point to most common household objects when prompted with the name for that object and should show interest in communicating with parents and other children about new items introduced into a familiar environment. Delays at this stage can result in children falling behind their peers socially and academically, so it’s essential to discuss any concerns or questions with the child’s pediatrician in order to identify any emerging developmental delays or physical problems that may be responsible for those delays.
Two to three years
While many parents dread the approach of the “terrible twos” and the behavioral changes that typically occur during this period, children acquire language skills at an exponential rate during this important year. As vocabularies expand, children begin to use language more appropriately and demonstrate a beginning understanding of sentence structure and grammar. While some children may be slower than others to talk plainly and understandably, there may be cause for concern if the child shows little or no progress in speech development and cannot form short sentences by the time he or she turns three.
Causes of speech development delays
Medical studies have identified a number of different contributing factors that may cause or worsen delays in speech and communication development. Physical problems with the tongue or soft palate within the mouth can typically be treated with minor surgery if necessary. Oral-motor difficulties may also be to blame; these issues result from poor communication between the muscles necessary to produce speech and movement and the areas of the brain that control those muscles. Therapy has been shown to produce good results in retraining the brain to provide better small-motor muscle control. Hearing problems may also result in delayed speech and communication skills; children often experience difficulties in imitating adult speech patterns if those patterns are not clearly heard and understood. Chronic ear infections in younger children can also produce similar symptoms, so prompt treatment for these minor ailments is essential in ensuring proper speech development.
Speech pathologists typically assess the child’s overall level of development and perform tests in order to provide the most effective treatment for each child’s unique situation. Depending on the age of the child and the cause of the developmental delay, speech pathologists may recommend surgical options, play therapy or other treatments. Parents should discuss treatment options with both the child’s primary care pediatrician and the speech pathologist in order to find a treatment plan that provides the best possible outcome for their child’s needs.