By two years old, Holly Budd’s son, Owen, could only say a few words. “When I was with other kids his age, I noticed how some children were speaking in sentences,” says Budd. But the Edmonton mom wasn’t overly concerned because Owen could understand instructions and had his own “words” for certain things . By the time he was two and a half, Owen’s language had caught up.
Owen was a typical “late talker”—a child who has a limited spoken-word vocabulary but has other language skills, such as being able to understand words spoken to him and communicate using gestures and a variety of speech sounds, until suddenly he has what Judy Meintzer, president of Speech-Language and Audiology Canada, calls a “language explosion.”
Other children, like Ally Gasco’s son, Evan, experience more serious speech delays. “He was never really a babbly baby,” recalls Gasco, who lives in Burlington, Ont. By age two, Evan could only say about 10 one-syllable words, so she took him to see a private speech-language pathologist. Tests revealed that Evan had chronic fluid in his ears that was affecting his hearing and, consequently, his speech. Gasco noticed improvements after ear tube surgery, but Evan continued to have oral motor challenges, meaning he has difficulty making the muscles in his mouth, tongue and lips form the shapes necessary to make sounds.
So how do you know if your child is just a late talker or truly delayed? Babbling, gesturing and using sounds like “ma” for mom, “da” for dad and “ba” for bottle, engaging in pretend play, and interacting with others are all signs that your child is picking up on the cues of language and starting to verbalize his needs and desires.
If your child seems to be lagging behind, you can take simple measures, such as holding an object close to your face and naming it, or giving him a choice (for example, “Do you want milk or juice?”) and pausing for several seconds for him to respond. That might be all he needs to get the words flowing.
It’s when milestones are missed that parents should consult with a speech-language pathologist, says Meintzer, who has primarily worked with toddlers in her 30-year-plus career. Some issues can be caused by cognitive delays or disorders such as autism or Down’s syndrome, as well as hearing impairment.
However, with speech and language a “wait and see” approach is not usually recommended if your child is older than 18 months, says Michael Dickinson, a paediatrician in Miramichi, NB. “It’s something that we always take pretty seriously,” he says. “Because it’s the kind of thing that is very amenable to treatment, especially if you get at it early.”
Teresa Nelles, a speech-language pathologist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, recommends if you have concerns to talk to your child’s paediatrician, who can point you in the direction of a publicly-funded speech pathology program (some provinces cover it) or private services in your area, as wait lists for free support can be long.
Brenda Day-Byrne, a mom of four in Riverhead Harbour Grace, Nfld., is glad she didn’t wait when she was anxious about her third son, David, who sat up late, walked late and at 18 months, still wasn’t making a lot of sounds. It turned out he had severe comprehension delays. Since his diagnosis, David, now in grade one, has been working regularly with a speech pathologist. “If I didn’t voice my concerns when I did,” says Day-Byrne, “starting school would have been a big issue for him, both socially and emotionally.”
A version of this article appeared in our April 2014 issue with the headline “Late talkers,” p. 52.