Up to 50% of children are thought to have some degree of delayed speech or language, according to experts. But what is normal … and how do you know if your child has a problem?
Mum-of-two and writer Louisa Pritchard shares her experience of having a child who struggles to talk …
My eldest son Huxley, four, LOVES to talk. In fact, he rarely stops chatting about his latest Lego obsession. Or what’s for dinner. Or whether he’d rather be Batman or Superman (he eventually settled on being SuperBat) … you get the picture.
So I expected his younger brother Chester, to be the exactly the same. Yet at two-and-a-half, while Chester understands most of what I’m saying to him, he is barely saying a word. And what he does say is, 90% of the time, almost impossible to understand.
Instead, he either screams in frustration at not being able to tell me what he wants … or Huxley talks for him. Which, if I’m honest, has made for quite an exhausting – and worrying – time.
Not only is Chester’s screaming upsetting for him, there’s been lots of times when we’ve both been in tears: him at not getting his point across, me wondering what on earth was wrong with him.
It’s also meant Chester’s behavior has got worse as he hasn’t been able to communicate what he wants. And the more frustrated he gets, the louder – and longer – he screams, until he’s pretty impossible to calm down.
All of which, according to the experts, points towards him having delayed speech – which we’ve realized since Chester’s two-year health check.
So while it was a relief to know that’s what’s behind his frustration, I began worrying about what delayed speech actually is … and if he’ll ever get to grips with talking.
What is delayed speech?
According to Mandy Grist, a speech and language therapist at I Can – a charity that supports children with speech, language and communication difficulties – delayed speech in children is actually quite common.
She says, ‘One in ten children will have longer term communication problems. Lots more will have delayed speech or delayed language development. There are statistics that say as many as 50% of children have delayed language or speech.’
Mandy explains that a child’s speech and language development is in two parts:
- The language is the content and vocabulary and the forming of sentences.
- The speech relates to how your child is making those sounds.
She adds, ‘There are lots of developmental milestones for language, just as there are for sitting and walking, and so on.
‘One of the challenges for us is that parents don’t always get that milestone information around speech and language as readily as the information about the child’s other milestones.’
What is ‘normal’ speech?
Knowing what is ‘normal’ is half the battle. A poll by Save the Children found 69% of parents underestimated how many words their child should know by the age of two-and-a-half.
Mandy says, ‘This survey is quite worrying because language skills are so important. The language your child has at the age of two predicts how well he’ll do at reading, writing and maths when he starts school.’
In Chester’s case, even when he was a baby he rarely babbled.. And while he just about hit the 18-month milestone for saying his first word (‘ball’) his vocabulary is – I’ve recently discovered – far less than he should have.
Now he has around 40 words … but not all of them are recognizable.
Mandy says, ‘A child starts to say his first word around one but there is a range – anything between nine months and 18 months for his first word is typical.
‘What’s important for families to know is they might not be words as we’d say them but it’s still a word. So your child might say ‘choof’ for train which counts as a word.’
According to I Can, here is the range of what you’d expect your child to be saying at different ages …
When your child is one
Your child might start to say his first words.
When your child is 18-months-old
Your child should be able to follow simple instructions. For example, ‘hug mummy’ or ‘give it to daddy’.
When your child is two
Your child will start to put two to three words together in simple sentences around this age. He may be able to say things like ‘daddy work’ or ‘more juice’.
He should also be able to say about 50 words but understand at least 200.
When your child is three
Your child should be able to understand longer instructions such as ‘put the teddy in the box’ or ‘get your coat, hat and shoes’.
He should now be linking words into sentences about four to five words long.
When your child is three-and-a-half
Your child should be able to be understood by unfamiliar people.
When your child is five
Your child should be using well-formed sentences.
Mandy adds, ‘If your child is not saying his first word by 18 months it’s worth seeking advice. And the same is true if by two he is not saying at least 25 recognizable words.
‘Parents very often don’t know what is typical at different ages.’
What are the signs your child might have delayed speech?
There are different signs to look out for at different ages, according to Mandy …
Your child wants to communicate but can’t. For example, he might pull on your arm or point at an object but doesn’t have the words for what he wants.
Your child has signs of frustration. He might also have behavioral issues. Delayed speech isn’t always regarded as a cause for this but the two are very closely linked.
Your child might be slow to respond to instructions. It might be your child is relying on being shown what to do rather than actually following instructions. By the age of three, he should be able to follow instructions.
Your child’s speech is jumbled. By four, your child should be quite clear in what he is saying.
Your child isn’t using the right sounds in words. By five, your child should have the right words and also be using the right sounds.
What causes delayed speech?
While a lot of the time it’s simply not known what causes delayed speech, there are things that can play a part.
One is, understandably, your child’s hearing, for example if he has glue ear.
Mandy says, ‘Glue ear can play a part so it’s good to be vigilant and be sure that your child’s hearing is okay.
‘If your child has glue ear he may struggle to say certain sounds as everything is a bit muffled. He might also be a bit switched off as he isn’t hearing everything.’
Another factor is your child having a dummy … something Chester had at night (and in the day) until about five months ago.
Mandy says, ‘Dummies can contribute to delayed speech. We don’t want to worry families as we often don’t know the reason behind the delayed speech.
‘But keeping dummies for sleep time is what we’d recommend.’
If I’m honest, I think a big part of Chester’s delayed speech is the fact he used a dummy so much. But I know other parents whose kids have a dummy and they have no issues at all with talking.
I don’t know if we’ll ever find out the reason.
Try not to compare your child to other children
It’s pretty hard not to compare your child to others around you. Most of Chester’s friends are chatting away while he can only scream in frustration to be understood … a constant reminder of how much he’s struggling.
Luckily everyone around us has been really supportive, although there have been a few throwaway comments about his screams . ‘God, he’s loud’ is something I hear quite often when we’re out.
I know others haven’t been so lucky. A friend whose son had delayed speech and could barely talk at three (it turned out he had glue ear) would often get asked by complete strangers why he wasn’t saying anything. Not what she needed when she was frantic with worry about him herself.
Mandy says, ’It’s natural for parents to compare their child with others. But just remember some children do things earlier than others.
‘Some get up and walk at nine months old, some talk early. ‘It’s more useful to compare your child with what we know about typical development.
‘On our Talking Point website there is a progress checker. Parents can answer key questions to help them identify whether their child is meeting milestones.’
Getting help for delayed speech
It took a brilliant health visitor at Chester’s two year check to get the ball rolling. She listened to my concerns about his development and referred him for expert help.
He’s now waiting for a one-to-one appointment with a speech therapist … something I wish I’d started to organize sooner.
Mandy says, ‘We don’t want to alarm parents but we do know that if your child is struggling, the earlier you seek help, the better.’
For free advice, I Can has a helpline along with free activities and information about your child’s speech.
Talk to your GP or health visitor if you are concerned about your child’s speech. They can refer you to a speech and language expert.
6 things parents can do at home
Along with speaking to an expert, there are also lots of things you can do at home with your child to help his speech.
As a starting point, Mandy suggests the following six simple exercises.
Use language within your child’s understanding
For example, give simple instructions one at a time rather than long instructions, which would mean your child has to pick out words to understand.
If your child says a word, repeat it back but add a word
For example, if he says car you could say ‘red car’ or ‘big car’. This means he is always hearing the next word.
This helps with his vocabulary and moves him on from one word to two words, and so on.
Repeat back words correctly but don't ask your child to say it correctly
If your child says ‘tup’, repeat back ‘cup’ and ‘let’s put the cup here’. So, he hears it back the right way but you’re not correcting him. Mandy stresses it’s important to not make your child feel he is doing something wrong.
Make sure your child is listening and understanding
Get his attention first by saying his name before you give the instruction.
Help him learn new words by giving him choices
If you’re offering a drink say milk or juice and hold each one up in front of him. That way he is always hearing the word associated with that object.
This is more effective than asking him questions that need a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
If you have older children, try to make sure they don’t always speak for their sibling
Ask your older child to let their younger sibling speak. For example, say: “I know you know, but let your brother have a turn.”