Late Speech Development, or Speech Delay?

It’s a fact: all children are unique and develop at their own pace in their own way. But at what point is late speech and/or language development considered delayed? When should a parent seek expert support?
Late Speech Development, or Speech Delay?
By Susan Roberts
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It’s a fact: all children are unique and develop at their own pace in their own way. There are, however, typical age ranges within which young children reach developmental milestones, such as eating solid food, starting to walk and starting to talk. 

For parents whose children are not hitting these milestones at the ‘typical’ times, observing other children apparently racing ahead developmentally, fear can set in quickly.

But at what point is late speech and/or language development considered delayed? When should a parent seek expert support? 

We spoke to Speech and Language Therapist, Andria Calicchio, to find out…

At what age do children usually start to talk?

Each child is unique and will develop at different rates, but most children will utter their first words at around one year. Prior to this however, children start to imitate sounds and attempt to say words (e.g. "ba" for baby). They will also usually point and using gestures with vocalizations (ie. Babbling, saying sounds/words) to communicate their needs and wants. 

By the age of 24 months, your child should be using approximately 50 words consistently and combining two words to make short phrases to express their needs and wants. In terms of understanding, a two-year-old can usually identify objects and body parts when named, and following simple instructions.

By the age of three, your child should be using short phrases to communicate. At this age, a child’s speech should be clear enough for an unfamiliar listener to mostly understand what they are saying. Pointing at this age is reduced and they will use more words and short sentences to communicate. They can now follow two-step simple instructions with minimal or no prompting. 

What factors or influences may impact a child’s speech and language development?

It is important to note the difference between “speech” and “language”:

Speech involves the sounds within words and how a child uses their muscles of their mouth to form these sounds.

Language is the words we use and understand, how we use these words to express our needs and wants, and our understanding of the words others use. 

There are many factors which may cause a speech and language delay in children. These include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Syndromes such as down syndrome, cleft lip/palate, autism
  • Fluency difficulties
  • Sensory difficulties
  • Reduced exposure to the language
  • Increased screen-time

Can using multiple languages at home cause a language delay?

Exposure to more than one language does NOT cause a language delay. However, children who are learning more than one language may appear to take longer to learn the languages as they have more to learn. They may also go through a silent period, as they take their time to process newly learned information. This does not mean that they have a language disorder. 

How can parents support their child’s speech and language development?

Parents / caregivers need to be “language role models” for children. They need to model, repeat and add to what the child is attempting to say.

Below are a few tips to assist with helping the child to further develop their language skills:

  • Use short phrases and sentences and speak clearly when engaging with the child.
  • REPEAT REPEAT REPEAT. Repetition is key when trying to teach a child a new skill, word or phrase. The more they hear it, the more they are encouraged to use it, the quicker they will learn it.
  • Add on to the word and phrases the child uses. For example, if they say “car”, you can say “yes, that is mummy’s car” or “good spotting, that is a blue car”.
  • Listen to your child and wait, allowing them just a little longer than you think they need to answer. Silence and gaps to process and formulate a response are as important as providing them with verbal input.
  • Always teach new words naturally through everyday activities in different environments (e.g. using books, at the store, at the beach or even while driving in car). 

When should parents seek professional help?

All children develop at different rates, but developmental milestones (i.e. skills your child should have by a particular age) can be used to as a general guide to what your child should be doing at a particular age. 

It is important that if you are concerned, or your child’s teacher has expressed concern, you seek help and guidance from a qualified trained professional. Early intervention is key and will assist in your child’s development. So if you are concerned, it is best to seek help early than wait. 

What therapies/treatments are typically used to support children with language delay?

Speech and language therapists use a variety of games, pictures and activities during therapy. Research has shown that children need far less repetition learning a new skill when it is done through play. Play-based therapy incorporating movement and fun activities will better aid with the acquisition, development and retention of a new skill when working with children. 

Speech and Language Therapist, Andria Calicchio

Andria Calicchio is a South African trained speech-language therapist and audiologist, currently working with Kids FIRST Medical Centre, Dubai. Andria works with children with a wide range of speech-language, hearing and feeding difficulties using an interactive, play-based approach.

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