As parents, it’s natural to worry about our children’s development every step of the way. During storytime, we notice toddlers of the same age beginning to walk. At daycare pickup, we overhear kiddos with a vocabulary wider than that of our own child. In a world where perfection is celebrated, it is difficult not to compare our child’s development to that of his or her peers—but we should try not to. As both a mother and a speech-language pathologist (SLP), this is what I’d like parents of babies and toddlers to know about late language emergence.

Understanding Language Development

Language development begins the moment we start interacting with our child. Back-and-forth interaction during the first year sets the foundation for later development of language. I often recall the viral video of a father and his baby taking turns during conversation. His son may not be saying words just yet, but by allowing him the opportunity to babble in response, he’s learning the rules of back-and-forth conversation. This father sets a great example of what parents should be doing to enhance their child’s language development from an early age.

When I had my own children, I saw language development through the parental lens for the first time. I realized that language acquisition doesn’t always correlate to a perfect timeline. I anxiously awaited my son’s first word when he turned one, with the milestone chart at the forefront of my mind, as a clinician typically does. But not every child has a word by his first birthday. Not every kiddo is combining words by the time she’s two. And in some cases, that’s okay. Each child is unique, and so is his or her development. Ranges of acquisition leave some wiggle room for children to develop at their own pace.

Milestones to Look for in Language Development

Milestones are helpful if we consider them to be general guidelines and not solidified expectations. According to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, babies begin to repeat sounds and vocalize when they’re spoken to around the age of 4 to 6 months. Babbling, communicating through gestures, and responding to requests picks up between 7 to 11 months. Words begin to develop around 12 to 17 months, and between 18 to 23 months a typical vocabulary is approximately 50 words. Towards the end of this period, toddlers begin to combine words into phrases, and by 2 to 3 years they’re typically using sentences.

Often, we see children falling beyond these ranges as a sign of a speech/language disorder. But there are some instances where a child’s vocabulary may grow at a slower rate than expected; this is not always a reason for concern.

What if You Have a Late Talker?

When late language emergence is a concern, without other diagnosed disabilities or developmental delays, a child may be referred to as a “late talker.” Typically, late talkers have acquired less words or a smaller vocabulary (expressive language) than what is expected, but parents report that their language comprehension (receptive language) is intact. For example, a child may struggle to ask for his sippy cup, but when his parents say, “Go upstairs and get your blanket,” he can follow the instruction without difficulty.

Being a late talker with an expressive language delay does not necessarily mean a child will go on to be diagnosed with a language disorder. In fact, a subset of children who have a late language emergence, or a delay in language onset without other diagnosed disabilities or delays, will catch up on their own. However, seeking an evaluation is recommended because it’s difficult to distinguish these children from the rest. It should be noted that children delayed in both expressive and receptive language are at greater risk for a language disorder than those whose comprehension skills are in the normal range.

The Benefits of Early Intervention

Children ages birth to three (and in some states until age five) can receive fully funded speech-language evaluations and therapy (upon qualification) through early intervention. A professional may refer a child for a speech-language evaluation, but parents do not have to wait for a referral to reach out themselves. Eligibility for early intervention varies by state, but in general, if a child has significant developmental delays in one or more areas, they will qualify for services.

Speech therapy can only aid in speech-language development; it can’t hurt in any way. An evaluation ensures that any on-going speech-language issues are discovered early so that therapy can allow for the best possible outcome later. When in doubt, have your child evaluated; there’s truly no reason not to. The CDC can aid in locating an early intervention program near you, if you’re not sure where to start.

Just Remember…

I hope parents remember that children acquire new skills in their own time. We should only compare our child’s development to their previous gains, while also paying attention to ranges of typical development. Comparison to other children often leads to unnecessary stress and inaccurate assessments.

As a mother of two boys who were both late talkers and who both received speech support through early intervention, I realize that deviation from expectations doesn’t always mean a disorder is present. But as an SLP, I also know that we can’t always determine which children will catch up on their own and which won’t. A referral to early intervention services is always recommended when parents are unsure if a need exists. The benefits of early intervention are undeniable, and we want to take advantage of that precious time.

Don’t stress over your child’s every word. Remember that each child is individual, and just like their ability to crawl and walk, they may not speak exactly when the milestone chart says they should. Also know that it is okay—and expected—for parents to be unsure of their child’s need for speech therapy. Referring your child to early intervention allows specialists to determine that for you. An evaluation through early intervention is available at no cost. There are SLPs ready to work with your child at every stage of development, and that may be exactly what your child needs to flourish.

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