Lorelei Charles wasn’t overly concerned about the “slushy” sound her four-year-old son, Connor, made when he said his Ss. He drooled a lot as a toddler, so it was easy to assume the endearing way he said “shorts” and “shoes” was a result of excess saliva, and something he’d outgrow. But when he started Montessori school in Dundas, Ont., his teacher suggested it might be more than just a cute quirk, because while chatty at home, he was quiet and withdrawn in the classroom. Thinking his speech might be a factor, his teacher recommended speech therapy. “I thought, Are we jumping the gun here? He’s only four,” says Charles.
Whether your kid has a lisp, a stutter, mispronounces words or uses baby talk (think “Mommy, up!” versus “Mommy, pick me up!”), it can be tough to figure out when to seek help. That’s because the range of what is considered normal in speech and language development is so wide. Some preschoolers might develop a stutter that can last anywhere from two weeks to six months, and that’s considered normal, notes Stacie Donison, a speech-language pathologist in Regina. (It’s often a temporary side effect of a rapidly growing vocabulary.) Others might use the wrong consonant sound for certain words, such as “baf” instead of “bath,” and that can be normal, too.
It’s easy to brush these issues off, but as speech-language pathologist Lynn Carson says, there’s a risk in leaving things too long. “It’s like building a house,” she says. “Language skills build on each other, and if there’s a hole in the foundation, it’ll become a bigger problem later on.” She’s found that the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome.
Experts recommend familiarizing yourself with speech milestones so you know what’s typical at each age (see sidebar.) Does your kid play well with others? Lagging social skills can also be an indicator of speech issues. “A lot of kids I see haven’t learned how to interact appropriately with others,” says Donison. “They’re shy because they know they talk funny.”
For any developmental delay, the best starting point is your family doctor, who can rule out any hearing issues and recommend a therapist.
Canada’s public health system offers free speech therapy, but the two-tiered waiting lists can be frustratingly long—there’s one list for assessment and another for treatment, and waits can be as long as a year. As tempting as it may be to jump that first line, the professional assessment is a critical piece of therapy. “We’ll help you understand what’s wrong and why it’s wrong,” Carson says. “And it’s the why that will influence treatment.” (Some schools do assessments in JK, which speeds up the process.)
FIXING THE ISSUE
Speech therapy requires a collaborative effort. For Charles, that meant working with Connor nightly using flash cards that emphasized his trouble sounds, as well as doing sucking and blowing exercises with straws and party horns to help keep airflow in the centre of his tongue.
There are multiple exercises you can try with your preschooler to boost their language skills. Reading, for instance, is much more than storytime. “It’s a language-building activity where we can expand on what’s happening and make predictions,” Carson says. If your kid has trouble with certain consonants, repeat what they say to you, but correct it. (If he asks for a “stawberry smoovie,” for instance, you say, “Sure! I’d love to make you a strawberry smoothie.”)
Charles is happy to report that the combined approach of therapy and homework worked. It wasn’t long before Connor could direct “th” and “sh” sounds toward the front of his mouth. “He’s speaking clearly,” she says. “His teachers say he’s a different Connor now—a very confident Connor.”
Early intervention is key for catching speech delays. Speech-language pathologist Lynn Carson recommends keeping an eye on critical milestones. “I tell clients to set an alert on their phone or computer to go off every six months as a reminder to check in and assess,” she says. By three to four years, most kids can:
* Speak in full sentences.
* Be understood most of the time by strangers.
* Hear you when you call from another room.
* Engage in multi-step pretend play.