Parents often worry about their children reaching their milestones. We worry during pregnancy that the pregnancy will go to full term and the baby will be born healthy. Then we worry if the baby is feeding enough, sleeping through the night or crying too much. Then we wonder if they will sit up at the "correct" time, walk at the "correct" time or talk at the "correct" time. Being a parent is a constant worry. So is there a right time for your child to be meeting these milestones? I will be focusing on the topic of talking for this post.
There may be a number of reasons why your child is not talking yet. There are quite a number of children who have straightforward language delay, and although they begin talking later than most, most of them catch up with their peers in the end, they may just need a bit of extra help or they may work it out on their own. There are other children who have autism, and depending on where they are on the spectrum, they may start speaking slightly later than average or they may be unable to produce much speech at all. They may have an underlying health condition which may cause delayed speech or mean that they are unable to speak, but I won't go into that here. I will be focusing on typical delayed speech, if it can be called typical.
So why does a child have delayed speech? Well, some children just start to speak later than others, just as some children start to walk later. The first thing I would check is your child's hearing. If they have a hearing impairment this may be the reason they are talking late. If they can't hear it they are not going to learn to understand language or produce sounds and words. Hearing impairment is usually picked up quickly as all babies are screened for it soon after birth. These children may go on to get hearing aids or cochlear implants.
However, there are lots of children who have normal hearing at birth but then develop glue ear at some point during the first few years of life and this can affect there hearing and, therefore, their language development. Glue ear is quite common in young children. It is caused by the build up of fluid in the ear normally after a child has had a cold. The fluid often goes away on its own, but sometimes it does not and this can cause difficulties with hearing. You may suspect your child has glue ear if you notice they do not respond when you call them or you may be repeating things to them quite often. Also, they may complain of noises being too quiet or too loud. You may not expect complaining of loud noises to be a sign of glue ear but it can be. If you suspect that your child has glue ear then you can take them for a hearing test.
There are guidelines as to the typical ages for speech and language development. When a baby is born it is unable to produce many sounds. During the first 3 months you can expect your baby to make some cooing sounds which are produced at the back of the throat and often accompanied by a vowel sound. They will use crying to communicate their needs. They will begin to smile at around 4-6 weeks old and soon after, they may begin to laugh.
From 3-6 months babies cries start to sound different when they are trying to communicate their different needs. They start to turn their head towards voices and begin to recognise their own name. They may begin to imitate facial expressions that they see. They start babbling which involves consonant and vowel sound combinations. They may appear to be trying to interact with adults.
At 6-9 months they can start to use gestures and exchange gestures with adults. This is why baby signing has become popular; babies are able to produce signs using their hands far before they are able to communicate via talking. They may begin to imitate repetitive sounds that they hear. Babbling becomes variegated, meaning they are starting to produce different combinations of sounds together and not just repetitive ones. They may begin to show understanding of simple commands such as 'come here' and may wave in response to a 'goodbye'.
At 9-12 months a baby may begin to say his first word but it is also normal for them to produce their first word after 12 months. The first words produced at this stage tend to be 'mama' or 'dada' which are easy, as well as important, words for them to produce. They may say one or two words spontaneously. They start to imitate more consonant and vowel combinations. They may also imitate the name of familiar objects. They begin to use jargon, speech-like utterances which sounds like they are talking without using meaningful words. When producing jargon they may sound like they are trying to have a proper conversation!
At around 12 months is when we expect to see the emergence of the first word. From 12-15 months they may be able to produce a few words. They may shake their head to communicate 'no'. They may imitate animal sounds and also other children. They start to use real words within their jargon. They also begin to take turns during play or conversations.
Between 15-18 months you will begin to notice that they are producing a few more words. They may try talking more often than using gestures. They may begin to ask 'what's that?'. They also start to ask for 'more'.
From 18-21 months they begin to understand more commands and action words. They may begin to identify pictures when you name them. They begin to imitate household chores and start to lead adults to an object that they desire. They may even imitate 2-3 words that they hear and engage in 'adult-like' dialogue.
At 21-24 months is when you can really expect your toddler to understand a lot more and be able to follow simple 2-step commands. They begin to refer to them self by name and may begin to start putting 2 words together as well as regularly saying new words. By the age of 24 months, children can have a vocabulary of between 50-200 words! As you can see, there is a huge variation there, all children are different.
After 24 months months is when you can really start to see a language explosion! Toddlers are saying 2 word phrases and are beginning to produce 3 word phrases. They start to use action words.
During the second year they learn to put more words together and talk to other children. They answer to yes/no questions correctly and start to use plurals and prepositions (on, in, under etc.). By the age of 3 years old you can expect your child to be talking in sentences, counting to three and following 3-step commands.
So after covering that, what are the other reasons your child may not be talking yet? Well, I have seen children in the past who did not talk simply because they didn't get a chance to! They may have a few older siblings who answer for them or the parents may jump in before giving them a chance to respond. Always give your child a chance to respond, they may just need a little more thinking time.
I have often heard parents of bilingual children worry that a second language is confusing their child and are concerned that it is contributing to their child's speech delay. "Little Tommy across the road hears 3 languages spoken at home, that's why he can't talk and he's almost 3 and a half!" So does multilingualism contribute to speech delay? Well, according to research there may be a slight delay for bilingual children but this will only be a delay of 2-3 MONTHS not years. So, instead of a child saying their first word at 12 months, they may say it instead at 14-15 months. Hardly a delay! Afterall, there are a lot of monolingual children who do not produce their first word until 14-15 months or even slightly later. So really, bilingualism is nothing to worry about. You can find some information on nurturing multilingualism here.
However, do not confuse this with a child who has just began to hear a second language due to moving abroad or starting at school and having to learn to communicate in a language which is different from their home language. These children will not begin to learn the language right away, although they will pick it up very quickly, in most cases, if they are young. You may notice that the new child in school will not talk much at all because they are going through the 'silent' period. This is a period where they are adjusting to the new language and taking it in before they begin to produce it. It is important not to confuse this with language delay.
It is important to remember that the guidelines are just that - guidelines. There may be children who say their first words slightly earlier or slightly later and that is fine - it's normal. There's nothing to worry about. However, if your child is 3 years old and only saying a few words there may be more reason for you to be concerned. If you are at all concerned just talk to your child's health visitor or GP who may be able to refer them to see a Speech and Language Therapist.
There are some tips and techniques you can try to help your child's language development and I will be covering these in another post soon.