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Does My Toddler Have a Speech Delay? How Can I Help?

Language development is a process that can be very different between one child and another. This is because each child develops language according to their own times and abilities.

Usually, children first learn to communicate, and then to speak. However, some children struggle with speaking and present poor language abilities. Parents usually get worried and do not really understand whether it will be permanent or if it is necessary to seek help from a Speech Therapist.

It is very important to recognize and pay attention to those milestones of language development that can help identify any issues at an early stage, so that prompt targeted treatment can be put in place to support the child as early as possible.

Here are some tips on how to recogne a delay in speech development and what you can do to help your toddler.

What to Know about Language Development

An important aspect to consider is that language development does not consist only in the production of language, meaning as what a child can say. It also concerns a whole range of skills including listening, recognition of different sounds (discrimination), motor skills, cognitive skills and affective development. As a matter of fact, your child’s expression level and communication skills depend on a combination of all these skills.

The beginning of verbal communication is normally preceded by a nonverbal or prelinguistic phase where you toddler acquires a series of communication skills that are essential for linguistic development: the prerequisites.

If the prerequisites are not present, verbal language may emerge late or not at all.

How do Speech and Language develop?

These skills we list above normally emerge very early, usually within the first 12 months of life.

During the first year of life, children acquire different communication skills and learn to communicate with the outside world through expressions, gestures and vocalisation (smiles, grimaces, different types of crying, babbing, etc) with which he communicates his needs and his emotions to the adult that takes care of him.

Initially, these behaviors are not intentional, but over time the interpretation, reinforcement and responses that adults give to these signals gradually cause them to assume a specific and stable means of communication for the child.

Milestones in Language Development:

0-3 months

At birth, babies have the ability to discriminate sounds from all the languages in the world. But starting at around 6 months, they lose this capability for languages other than their own, recognizing as “different” only their mother tongue language. Infant have a preference for their mother’s voice and face, and the main form of communication at this stage is crying.

3-6 months

The canonical or babbling stage starts, that is, the repetition of syllables made up of the same consonant (for example ba-ba-ba, ma-ma-ma). Babbling does not develop in the same way in all children, however, it is an important indicator for later language development.

8-10 months

Babbling becomes varied. That is, children learn to repeat multiple syllables with different consonants (ba-ma-la) and a sentence-like intonation. This stage of language development is very important. It has been observed that children who have a richer sounding babbling develop a broader vocabulary. The child now also begins to understand single words and use the gestures to intentionally indicate, show or request things. The first gestural routines also appear (social gestures such as sending a kiss or saying bye bye).

12-18 months

At 12 months, the production of words is anticipated by representative gestures. These gestures symbolically represent an object or an action (example, gestures of sleeping or drinking). During this year, the first words start appearing (0 to 10 words). These first words are usually related to familiar people and/or objects or to ritual activities. They are mainly articulated with nasal sounds (/ m, n /) and occlusive sounds (/ p, b, t, d /), for example mama, dada, no, bye …

The child now begins to understand short sentences and simple orders, and the adult, who was previously considered only an agent (ie a means to obtain what he desires), begins to be seen as a subject to communicate with.

12-18 months

The vocabulary gradually expands, until it reaches the threshold of 50 words around 18 months, to enter a phase called “the explosion of vocabulary”. The child gradually understands that an object corresponds to each word and that through language he can act on the world around him. For this reason, the acquisition of new words in this phase becomes much faster. This is the stage where children become interested in the names of things and begin using them. No sentences are used yet, but rather sentence-words, that is, single words that encompass the meaning of a whole sentence.

18-24 months

This phase sees a progressive expansion of the vocabulary to reach 150/200 words at around 24 months of age. At this age, the first sentences appear in the form of telegraphic speech, that is the combination of two words without the presence of articles, conjunctions and complex verbal forms (for example mamma pappa).

24-30 months
Fricative sounds (consonants produced by forcing air through a narrow channel in the vocal tract) are voiced (/ f /, / v /, / s /). The vocabulary, in addition to expanding, now becomes progressively more varied. It is enriched not only with nouns, but also with verbs and adjectives, and reaches up to 500 words. Morpho-syntactic skills also start developing, and the child begins putting together simple sentences using subjects and verbs.

30-36 months

Sentences widen and become more and more complete. Articles, prepositions, pronouns are introduced and the child progressively acquires all the sounds of their language, usually completing the entire phonemic inventory within 6 years.

What is a Speech Delay? toddler

The expression “speech delay” is used when a child who, without presenting particular hearing, cognitive and/or social issues, develops language later than usual.

As we have seen, each child has their own personal timing in development, which must be respected. There is no need to make comparisons between children or demand that they go beyond their abilities, and this attitude can actually be harmful, as it can induce feelings of failure and frustration, as well as impair their motivation and undermine their self-esteem.

However, you should not on the other hand put oneself in a state of simple “confident expectation” that the problem will solve itself, as there is a risk of wasting precious time. If you think your toddler may have a language delay, an assessment by a specialised speech & language therapist will help you understand whether there really is a problem, so that it can be approached early and effectively.

When is a speech delay likely to occur?

In general, we talk about language delay when a child says less than 10 words at 18 months of age, less than 50 words at 24 months or less than 80 words at 2 years of age, although there is no strict rule.

Toddlers affected by a language delay are usually between 18 and 30 months old, and typically develop play, motor, and cognitive (reasoning) skills, but have limited vocabulary and poor language. Some children manage to catch-up on their own, while others require speech therapy; but there is no way to tell which path a specific child will take.
In some children there is a higher risk that the language issues may persist. This risk is higher, for example, for children with a history of ear infections or colds, in children that use a limited number of consonant sounds and mostly use vowels and in children that don’t connect ideas or use imitation. In some cases, there is more to the language delay than the language delays itself, for example when the child also:
– exhibits stereotyped behavior;
– does not seem to understand what you are saying when you do not give non-verbal signals;
– does not hear if you are not in front of him or is frightened by noises;
– has difficulty playing with other children.

toddler speech delay

Does my toddler need a Speech Therapist?

An early recognition of a speech delay is essential. Several studies have shown that the later the treatment, the harder it is for children to fully catch up.

A speech and language therapist will be able to assess the situation, plan a treatment where there is a true issue, and support and monitor the child’s linguistic development in time.

Possible evolutions of Language Delay

The age of 3 is a turning point in the distinction between a late speaker and a speech disorder. In case of a speech disorder, a careful clinical evaluation will allow to determine whether the problem is a Speech Language Impairment (SLI) or a Developmental Language Disorder (DLD).

There are two possible evolutions in case of a language delay:
– Recovery of speech development without the need for specific treatment. In this case we also speak of “Late Bloomers”, that is, children who bloom late.
– persistence of a speech and language disorder. In this case, a more in-depth evaluation will be required to understand whether the problem is isolated or associated to other issues.

Useful exercises to encourage  toddlers with a speech delay

Sound Games

Among the best games to play to promote language development, are sound games. For example by using soap bubbles (use words like up-down, big-small) or puppet games (chatting to each other or to the child himself).

Singing toddler speech delay

Music can be a great help for children who struggle with a speech delay. Singing can help learn many words. Children love listening to and singing their favorite songs over and over again. Repetition is very helpful, as it teaches children to speak properly by helping them hear words over and over again.


Another one is an evergreen: reading books is one of the best ways to teach a child to speak properly. Choose books with images that will be more stimulating. Reading books is not only important for speech development; it is also a great way to help enrich vocabulary and help your preschooler prepare to read in the future.

Words Daily Exercises

As a parent, you are looking for the very best ways to encourage speech development in your toddler, but you also need activities that your child will actually enjoy. One of the most useful toddler speech delay exercises you can do is simply that of talking and introducing new words and meanings. Talking your way through each day, naming foods at the grocery store, talking about where you are driving to, and even pointing out all the sounds you hear are some of the best toddler speech delay exercises you can do.

As a general rule, you should speak in sentences that are the same length as your child’s or slightly longer and you should never be afraid of repeating the same words over and over, as children learn through repetition!

toddler not speaking yet

Try Online Apps Toddler Speech Delay

If this is not engaging enough for your child, you can try online apps. There are many interactive language learning apps out there that have been created specifically to help toddlers develop their language skills. Many of these have been proven to work also for children with autism, down syndrome, and apraxia.

How can you Help your Toddler speech delay

Finding the right toddler speech delay exercises that will help encourage speech development can be challenging. When you communicate with your toddler make sure to ask questions, acknowledge them when they talk to you, and always avoid baby talk. Also, always try to translate into words the requests your toddler might make through gestures.

If you think your child may have a speech delay do talk to your GP and ask whether there might be useful for your toddler to be seen by a speech & language therapist.

If you do not want to go to a clinic, which can be overwhelming for your toddler, you can ask for a home visit or an online speech and therapy consultation with Medelit’s certified speech and language therapists.

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