Speech and Language Delay

What is a speech and language delay?

A speech and language delay is when a child isn’t developing speech and language at an expected rate. It is a common developmental problem that affects as many as 10% of preschool children.

How do I know if my child has speech delay?

Every child develops at his or her own pace. But if your child doesn’t talk as much as most children of the same age, the problem may be speech delay.

Symptoms of a speech and language delay

Your child may have a speech delay if he or she isn’t able to do these things:

  • Say simple words (such as “mama”) either clearly or unclearly by 12 to 15 months of age.
  • Understand simple words (such as “no” or “stop”) by 18 months of age.
  • Talk in short sentences by 3 years of age.
  • Tell a simple story at 4 to 5 years of age.

What causes a speech and language delay?

The most common causes of speech delay include:

  • hearing loss
  • slow development
  • mental retardation.

Other causes include:

  • Psychosocial deprivation (the child doesn’t spend enough time talking with adults).
  • Being a twin.
  • Autism (a developmental disorder).
  • Elective mutism (the child just doesn’t want to talk).
  • Cerebral palsy (a movement disorder caused by brain damage).

Why might living in a bilingual home affect my child’s language and speech?

The brain has to work harder to interpret and use 2 languages. So it may take longer for children to start using either one or both of the languages they’re learning. It’s not unusual for a bilingual child to use just one language for a while.

How is a speech and language delay diagnosed?

Your doctor can help you recognize a speech and language delay. He or she can listen to your child’s speech and check your child’s mental development. Your doctor may also refer you to other specialists. For example, you doctor may suggest a hearing screening for your child. An audiologist (a licensed hearing health care professional) would most likely perform a hearing test to check for hearing problems.

Can a speech and language delay be prevented or avoided?

Depending on what is causing your child’s speech delay, you may not be able to prevent it. If your child’s speech is delayed due to a hearing loss, hearing aids or cochlear implants may help your child hear speech. Once your child has access to sound (and speech), he or she may be able to develop language and even catch up to their hearing peers.

If your child hears and understands language, you can encourage him or her to speak by talking as much as you can around them. Describe what you are doing, from washing the dishes to watering the plants to serving lunch. Keep talking. If your child speaks, confirm what he or she is saying. Always provide feedback.

Speech and language delay treatment

Your child may not need any treatment. Some children just take more time to start talking. The way your doctor might treat your child depends on the cause of the speech delay. Your doctor will tell you the cause of your child’s problem and explain any treatments that might fix the problem or make it better. A speech and language pathologist might be helpful in making treatment plans. This person can show you how to help your child talk more and speak better, and also can teach your child how to listen or how to lip read.

Other health care workers who may be able to help you and your child include: an audiologist, a psychologist (a specialist in behavior problems), an occupational therapist or a social worker (who can help with family problems). Your family doctor will refer you to these health care workers if your child needs their help.

Living with a speech and language delay

Speech and language delays can be frustrating for parents and children. A child who can’t express his or her thoughts and emotions is more likely to act out. They anger easily. They may use unexpected behavior to get your attention. Try to remember that your child does want to communicate with you. Read to your child and talk as much as you can. Encourage your child to speak. When he or she tries to speak, praise their efforts.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Why is my child not talking yet?
  • Should I talk to my child more to help him/her figure out how to talk?
  • Is it normal for my child to not be speaking yet?
  • My child seems to have trouble understanding what I’m saying. Is it possible he/she has hearing loss?
  • Does my child have a developmental disability?
  • What can I do to help my child speak or understand better?
  • Is there any material you have that I can read about speech and language delay?
  • Will my child be able to attend school?