should-my-toddler-be-speaking-yetMy son, at 25 months, is not a natural talker. Strange, being brought up in a family with a chatterbox sister and very talkative Mum and Dad, that he hasn’t mastered the art more easily. At around the 20-month point I started thinking about whether this was normal or not, and now, 5 months later, I still ponder on the question of whether he’s a slow starter, or whether I should be thinking about professional help.

I read about this a lot in various forums: parents being recommended speech therapy for their kids because the majority or minority language isn’t on a par with the other kids in the playgroup. Since when did we get so keen on comparing? Weren’t we all taught that it wasn’t healthy to measure our children according to their peers, in terms of growth, number of teeth, ability to do long division etc? So why now does it matter if language production is a few months behind little Johnny at Kindy?

Let’s consider a few of the variables: so many people comment “Oh, but he’s a boy. They’re always a bit slower to start speaking!”. Really? Well, actually- maybe! Research has found that language delay happens in about 12% of children, the majority of these being boys. “For years, the possible causes have been a mystery,” says researcher Andrew J. O. Whitehouse, PhD, (Associate professor at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research at the University of Western Australia in Perth). “What we found was that exposure to increased levels of testosterone, particularly in males, may be one of the reasons for language delay. Really it is the first sort of biological finding, sort of a biological risk factor, for language delay.”

Next, my son is learning 2 languages- another common pointer for language delay. This one is actually false though: Children learning two languages at the same time will go through the same developmental patterns in both of their languages and at roughly the same time as children learning one language. While the vocabulary of each individual language might be smaller when counted separately, the total vocabulary of bilingual children is comparable to monolingual children when both languages are taken into account. Sometimes young children learning two languages mix words or grammar from their two languages, known as “code mixing” or “code switching”. This is very normal and does not indicate that the child is having difficulty with language learning.

Finally, my son has a big sister, so I constantly hear: “Oh, his sister will do all the talking for him- he won’t speak as much”. Rubbish! Several studies have shown that the language development and skills of first-born and later-born children are similar. In fact, a study by Berglund, Eriksson M., and Westerlund M. (2005,  Communicative skills in relation to gender, birth order, childcare and socioeconomic status in 18-month-old children. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology) showed superior skills in later-born children in the areas of pronoun use and conversation skills. The study showed that first-born children reach the 50-word milestone earlier, but that once children had reached the 50-word milestone, there were no differences between first- and later-born children. So while older siblings often interrupt and talk for their younger siblings, this does not seem to have a negative impact on the younger sibling’s development.

Knowing what’s “normal” and what’s not in speech and language development can help you figure out if you should be concerned or if your child is right on schedule.   At 12 months children should be cooing and babbling, and this should develop into specific sounds or imitating words by 15 months. Though there is a lot of variability, most toddlers are saying about 20 words by 18 months and 50 or more words by the time they turn 2. Most children between the ages of two and three will make a big leap in their communication skills. A 2-year-old should be able to identify common objects (in person and in pictures), points to eyes, ears, or nose when asked, and follow two-step commands (“Please pick up the toy and give it to me,” for example). Comprehension also should increase — by 3 years of age, a child should begin to understand what it means to “put it on the table” or “put it under the bed.” Your child also should begin to identify colors and comprehend descriptive concepts (big versus little, for example)

If by 2 1/2 years of age, your child is not using two-word sentences or is not able to follow simple verbal instructions, consult your pediatrician.  Early detection of a problem is key, and your pediatrician should be happy to discuss your concerns and steer you in the right direction if more assistance is needed.

You can work on your child’s language skills in a variety of ways.

  • Share songs, books, and repetitive rhymes together.
  • Talk to your children a lot.
  • Point out items in your child’s world using short phrases or sentences such as, “That’s a tall tower!” or “Down the slide!”
  • Expand on what your child says.  If he says, “See the horse!”  You can respond with, “What sound does a horse make?”
  • Pay attention when your youngster talks.  Be interested in his world.

It is amazing that your baby goes from babbling to saying single words to short phrases and then to full sentences in only a few years.    Enjoy this time together as you watch your little one blossom.  Some children will naturally talk earlier than others.  By the time your youngster is in his first year of school, it probably will be irrelevant whether he talked clearly at one, two, or three!