Parents of some toddlers often ask experts, "Is my child a late talker?" Some children learn to talk later than others. Many of the late-talking children catch up with their peers by the time they are in kindergarten. But, there’s more to it.
Defining Late Talking - Who Is a Late-Talker?
Almost all children go through the same stages of speech and language development as they grow up. SLPs (Speech Language Pathologists) who specialize in speech and language disorders in children often state that the range of "normal" for children is quite broad when they are learning and growing.
It is only natural for parents to worry about their child's speech and language development. However, an 18-month old saying fewer than 50-words may be a late-talker.
The average 24-month old can master around 300 words and use the newly learned words to form very short sentences. So, you can expect your 2-year old to say short sentences like "more cookie" or "mommy walk."
Speech delay in children should be a concern and you should consult with your pediatrician to rule out the physiological causes of speech delay in your child.
Is Late-Talking A Genetic Problem?
There are currently no studies that provide a genetic basis for late-talking. However, experts do share the observation that late-talking may cluster in families.
It is only typical for a late-talking child to have a parent, cousin, uncle, or grandparent who was also a late-talker. A late-talker may even have a relative who has had a speech or language disorder.
Is Speech Delay A Disorder?
‘Speech delay’ is when a child doesn't reach the age-appropriate milestones in time.
A speech delay is NOT a disorder. However, it can be a sign or symptom of many disorders. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), cerebral palsy (CP), Down's syndrome, childhood apraxia of speech, aphasia, or hearing loss may exhibit a significant language delay.
More than 50% of the children with language and speech delays catch up to their peers on their own. By the time they enter kindergarten, their speech and language skills may average out.
Nonetheless, the other 50% are at risk of experiencing language and speech problems for the remainder of their life. So, even though speech delay isn't always a disorder, it warrants the attention of SLPs, ENTs, neurologists, and pediatricians.
How to Tell If Your Child Is a Late Talker?
When you ask - is my child a late talker?- you will find it hard to answer this question objectively. Therefore, it is best to observe and note what your child says, how often they speak, and how much they understand your speech.
You can compare your child’s speech and language to the developmental milestones according to their age. Be careful to use a trusted and verified source like ASHA for the reference charts.
A baby should ideally say their first words by the time they are 12-months old. They should be babbling long strings of sounds like ba-ba-ba, or ma-ma-mama. They may even be able to say a few words like "dada," "mama," "dog," or "bye." However, there is no reason to worry if the sounds aren't clear.
By 18-months, they should be able to use around 50 words. 18-month old children are typically able to say at least 20 words. These may be nouns (cookie, juice, 'nana), verbs (go, eat), adjectives (cold, up), prepositions (up, down), and other words (hi and bye).
Is your 2-year-old child not talking?
By the time children are 2-years old, they should begin putting two words together to form short sentences. 24-month old children should be able to use "p," "w," "b," "h," and "m" in words. You can also expect them to ask questions like "where's mommy?" and "who's that?"
Is your child not speaking clearly at 3?
By their third birthday, children are able to understand and learn new words quite quickly. So, you can expect them to use prepositions in their sentences. They should also be able to form 3 and 4-word sentences to describe objects, events and ask questions. They can also understand opposites and follow two-part directions.
Is your 4-year old kid not talking at all?
By the time they are 4-years old, your child should be able to respond when you call them from another room, understand the names for some colors and shapes, and understand words for the family. They should also be able to answer simple questions like "who," "what," and "where?"
A 4-year old should be able to use pronouns, use plural words and talk about what happened during the day. They should also be able to put together 4-word sentences. People should be able to understand most of what they say. So, a child not talking at 4 should be a serious concern for all parents.
These are some of the speech and language milestones you can refer to while evaluating your child’s speech and language development. Or, you can book a consultation with an SLP in your locality, if you are concerned that your child is a late bloomer.
Common Reasons Why a Child May Talk Late
Speech delay is prevalent in toddlers. The reported language delay in toddlers ranges from 2.3% to 19%. Studies show that severe language delays in children can lead to difficulty reading in their elementary school years. Some children also experience attention and social difficulties in their adolescence.
Exploring the reasons for speech delay in children can give you an insight into why an otherwise active toddler not talking can be risky.
Expressive and receptive language disorders - Primary speech delay can be caused by expressive and/or receptive language disorders. These disorders are not self-correcting. Whether your child is a late bloomer due to expressive or receptive language disorder, you will need to work with a speech-language pathologist to help your child's speech-language development.
Children who lose their hearing due to injuries or infections before learning to speak can experience severe speech delays. Medical interventions and sessions with an SLP can help make up for deficits in their speech and language.
Delayed speech can be a sign of intellectual disability in children. There can be one or more genetic causes of intellectual disability (ID). Since ID isn't curable, children who talk late as an effect of ID typically benefit from attending speech therapy sessions with SLPs and special educators.
Developmental Disorders And Disabilities
Down syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and fetal alcohol syndrome can cause speech delay in a child. Experts refer to this type of speech delay as secondary. Speech therapy can help a late-talker child with developmental disorders or disabilities but to a limited extent.
Children with cerebral palsy may struggle with their speech. They may have slow and slurred speech that’s difficult to understand. Children with athetoid cerebral palsy find it difficult to control their facial and tongue muscles. Physical therapy alongside speech therapy can help a child with cerebral palsy, although the condition is congenital and incurable.
Epilepsy or Seizure Disorders
Epilepsy becomes evident in early childhood. Studies show that seizures may interfere with the function and development of the language areas of the brain. It's common in children with absent seizures and epilepsy arising in the left side of the brain.
Anomalies In The Brain Structure/Function
Injury to the language centers in the brain can lead to speech and language problems in children. While asphyxia is now a rarity with hospital births gaining popularity, other issues like in-utero brain trauma and traumatic brain injuries after birth can lead to irreversible speech delay in toddlers.
Risk Factors to Watch for With Late Talking Children
Children can begin talking late for a variety of reasons. It is often difficult to predict who is at more risk of speech delays and language problems. Parents who are worried about their children's speech delay should consider the following factors to weigh the risks associated with late talking –
Is He/She A Twin?
Studies show that twins are at a greater risk of developing speech delays. A combination of social and biological factors is at play. However, twins are likely to catch up to their singleton peers by the time they are of preschool-age. It is only true if the twins do not have any congenital or developmental disorders.
Is He/She A Late Child?
Advanced maternal age has been linked to severe speech delay in 2-year olds. Research shows that the advanced age of the mother during birth is not associated with morbidities and long-term neurodevelopmental impairment. These children typically respond well to early speech exercises at home and increased attention from parents.
What's Their Family Socioeconomic Status?
Multiple studies corroborate that family socioeconomic status has a crucial role in the language development of the child. A child from a lower socioeconomic home may show lower levels of language development and speech skills in comparison to a child of the same age from a high socioeconomic home.
Current research cites a child's language experience at home as the source of their language difference. Exposing a child to new experiences, environments, and people from different socioeconomic backgrounds can somewhat compensate for the delay in the long run.
Is Your Child Getting Enough Attention?
Parenting skills have a minor role to play in the speech and language development of a child. However, we should not neglect the influence of parenting since it is controllable and adjustable to a great extent.
Studies show that spending quality time with the child, talking to the child, and using gestures while talking about a person or object can influence the child’s speech and language development.
Promoting child-centered play, increasing home-based playtime between child and parent, and following the child’s lead during activities can encourage the child to interact positively. It can contribute to enhanced language skills as well.
Is There A History Of Late-talkers In The Family?
Although there's no genetic basis for speech delay, research has shown that speech and language development may be influenced by family history. If there's a record of the child's parent(s), grandparent(s), uncle(s), aunt(s), or cousin (s) talking late, there is an increased risk that the child might also be a late-talker.
In such cases, it is common to enquire, "Can a child with speech delays catch up with other children?" Well, there is a good chance that they might unless they have neurodevelopmental disorders, congenital disorders, and related disorders that affect their speech-motor system.
So, it is prudent to get your child checked up by a pediatrician, ENT, and SLP even if they have a healthy and neurotypical relative who was a late bloomer.
When Is the Right Time to Seek Help?
Parents and caregivers should understand at least 50% of a child's speech when they are 2-years old. By their fourth birthday, almost everyone should be able to understand the child's speech.
If you find yourself asking, "why is my child not talking at 4 years?" or "why is his/her speech still not understandable?" then it is probably time for you and your child to see a specialist.
Unless you can determine the source of the speech delay, it is difficult to predict whether your child will catch up to their peers. It is safer to consult an SLP if you are worried about your child's speech and language development.
Early interventions can boost your child’s speech and language skills. Identifying and treating speech-language delays is the best approach.
How Can Speech-Language Therapy Help A Late Talker?
Depending on the age and severity of the delay, a speech-language pathologist can suggest therapy methods that will best benefit your child. Speech-language therapy can boost a child's speech and language skills. However, the level of improvement will depend upon the cause or source of their speech delay.
A speech-language pathologist (SLP) can also tell parents how to enhance the quality of the time they spend with their children. You may receive advice and instructions on how to communicate with your child to improve their speech-language skills.
To know more about how speech-language therapy can help you and your child, you can refer to the post on the role of SLPs in treating speech and language disorders.