Children who are late to talk
Is my child late to talk?
First words are a very exciting time in your child’s development. However, there can often be uncertainty around an appropriate time frame for your child to be gaining these first words – especially if you haven’t been able to watch other young children learn their first words.
These days as professionals, we’re moving away from the idea of ‘milestones’, to rather talk about ‘developmental patterns’. This recognises the unique journey that each child will take, and offers a more strength-based approach.
That said one of the most frequent questions we are asked by mothers of infants and toddlers is, when should my child be starting to talk?
In this piece, we discuss the general developmental pattern, and talk about the ‘wait and see’ advice that is frequently offered.
What is a late talker?
A late talker is typically described as a 2-year old who has not developed 50 words in their vocabulary, and is not yet
combining two words into phrases. By the age 2, children generally can say between 50 and 200 spoken words, and can understand many many more. This range of vocabulary allows them to start putting these words together to speak in small phrases.
Now.. there are exceptions! And it might depend on how your child is learning language.
Click here – to read about the two methods that children may use to develop language – analytic & gestalt learning styles.
Should I wait until my child is 2 before seeking support?
It is never too early to seek support for your child’s communication – the earlier you start therapy, the sooner you can see positive outcomes like hearing first words, seeing your child learn to express themselves, and increasing their ability to learn about the world.
Certainly we would always recommend, if you are unsure, or feel concerned – seek support. At a minimum, you’ll be ruling out concerns. It’s recommended to have an individualised assessment, tailored to your child, and your family & cultural background considerations, rather than making decisions off general information.
If you are going to wait.. try informed waiting.
That means – know what you are waiting for, and track progress while you are waiting.
For example, see the story below ( *note – this story is fictional, not a real case).
Sophia is approaching her second birthday. Sophia’s mum, Carly is concerned as Sophia currently makes some sounds, but doesn’t really have a proper ‘first word’ yet. Carly has had Sophia’s hearing checked, and is wondering whether to start Speech Therapy.
Carly decides to wait until Sophia is two. But to help her, Carly has heard about the OZI-SF from a friend, and decides to use this as a way to measure Sophia’s progress in the meantime.
The OZI-SF is a 12 minute checklist for parents, to measure vocabulary. It doesn’t give a diagnosis, but it’s a great way to get started with thinking about communication, and provide parents with more information about their child’s communication under 3 years.
Carly completes the OZI-SF three times in total, each 1 month apart, and each time gets a report emailed to her. When Sophia is 2 years 1 month, Carly then takes those three reports from the OZI-SF to a Speech Pathologist, because she wants to get more individual recommendations, having not yet seen the growth she hoped to see in Sophia’s communication.
This is an example of ‘waiting’, but also – informing yourself & gathering information on your child’s communication to help you make decisions.
To access the OZI-SF – click this link – it is a freely available tool developed by Western Sydney University BabyLab.
Why might my child be late to talk?
There are a few different reasons that can have difficulties learning to understand, or use words:
- Children who are Late Talkers – These children require more targeted language exposure and prompting in order to use spoken communication. Once the appropriate language modifications and strategies are implemented, these late talkers typically ‘catch up’ to their expected communication milestones.
- Children who have a Developmental Language Disorder – Children with a language disorder have an underlying weakness that impacts on the development of their receptive (i.e. understanding) and/or expressive (i.e. output) language skills. Throughout therapy, they typically will have a slower response to intervention and may require targeted work on all aspects of language, such as sentence construction (i.e. how to order words), grammar, vocabulary (i.e. word learning), and use (i.e. using language to interact with others). 7-10% of Australian children present with a Developmental Language Disorder. To learn more about it – head to https://thedldproject.com/
- Speech Difficulties – Children with speech difficulties have errors in producing the correct speech-sounds/a range of sounds, which impacts on their ability to speak clearly, or intelligibly. They may appear to be attempting words and phrases, but are difficult to understand – or sometimes they may be unable to attempt certain words at all.
- Other reasons– Children with an underlying developmental disorders or disabilities, or children who are neurodivergent (such as Autistic Children or children with Downs Syndrome) will make slow or no progress with ‘general’ language modifications and strategies. They usually need individualised interventions and strategies in order to support their communication development. They also frequently present with other difficulties in conjunction with delayed communication. This can include: difficulties attending to others, difficulties playing with other children/adults, difficulties with co-regulation, difficulties learning (even with repetition), limited focus, or motor challenges. Sometimes not speaking is the first indicator of more general difficulties or differences with development.
What can I do to help my toddler’s language develop?
- Read – Reading books to your child is a great way to teach new vocabulary as they have repetitive vocabulary and contain pictures you can refer to. You can mix up story reading by moving between talking about the pictures and reading the text.
- Play – Playing with your child is another great way to teach vocabulary and sentence structures in a fun and interactive way. You can target vocabulary by selecting different toys and making them do different actions. Within play, your child also has the opportunity to practise using language in a social way, by responding to and expressing ideas.
- Slow Down – You don’t have to turn into a slow-motion robot, but slowing down your sentences and pausing between sentences can make a difference to your child’s language development. It allows extra time for your child to hear the individual words you are using and process how you put them together in a sentence. Leaving a pause also gives your child the opportunity to have a go responding.
- Praise – Praise your child with excitement each time they attempt a word, even if the word wasn’t clear. This will positively reinforce their efforts and increase the likelihood of them attempting more words. Try to avoid correcting their pronunciation too much, aim rather to model correct production.
If you would like to further discuss your child’s communication profile, or receive further information about ways to support language development at home, please get in touch with one of our paediatric Speech Pathologists via phone (07) 3265 4495 or email [email protected]
Written originally by Thida Hantun, Speech Pathologist, May 2020
Reviewed by Marion Giddy, Speech Pathologist, January 2024.