We battle the odds every day. We make silly bets over sporting events, ride on rollercoasters, buy lottery tickets, and fly in airplanes. Chances are we won’t win the lottery or crash in a transportation accident, but we still take the chances because the reward is worth the risk. Some things though, aren’t worth the risk. We don’t swim in the ocean at dusk, we buckle up when we drive, and we get yearly physicals because those risks aren’t worth taking chances over. When it comes to babies and toddlers who are “late talkers”, one approach is called “wait and see”, and it comes with a lot of controversial opinions.
As a speech therapist, my job is to look at all the sides, all the evidence, all my experience, and all the needs and wants of my patients and their families. I am an advocate for therapy and for early intervention--the sooner help is sought, the better, and there is evidence out there that supports this advocacy. By starting in a strong early intervention program, such as seeking therapeutic help or through a local “Help Me Grow” agency, children can get the jumpstart they need while their brains are still developing (from birth to 3), which can have lasting effects on their language and lifestyles. Children who are late to talk are still children; they still have wants, needs, and thoughts they want to tell you about. Many children who are “late talkers” understand and are aware of everything going on around them. They can follow directions, point to objects, and identify body parts--their brains are developing and growing--but their words are limited and they are locked inside their own minds.
The term “late talker” is hard to apply as a solid definition. Babies from 12 to 18 months should be developing an expressive vocabulary of 10-18 words by 18 months old, making animal sounds, and starting to pair words. By the age of 2, children should be using paired words all the time, 3-word sentences frequently, and have 50-100 words. If a kiddo isn’t talking at all or is behind, parents can seek therapy or “wait and see”. However, the longer the “wait and see” approach happens, the longer that child goes without a way to communicate. That means that toddler has no way to ask for more milk, say goodbye to Daddy before he deploys, tell if his tummy hurts, or express his emotions. In the “wait and see” approach, no intervention happens, no therapy happens, and you just wait it out. But, while you’re waiting it out, those are months passing by where your child had no way to express their wants, needs, or thoughts to the people around them. Those are months that could have been spent in therapy, with a licensed and trained professional increasing your child’s vocabulary. Not only is a “late talker” at risk of falling behind or staying behind, there’s also a chance that the kiddo may have a different speech or language problem going on. Kiddos who are “late talkers” may actually have apraxia of speech, semantic (word meaning) deficits, syntactic (word order) deficits, auditory processing errors, hearing loss, or a variety of other deficits. Not delays, not something that fixes itself, but actual deficits that require specialized help in order to improve. So is it a delay or a deficit...and is that a risk you’re willing to take?
None of this means that a speech therapist thinks parents don’t talk to their child or are a bad mom or bad dad. But speech and language pathologists know about multisensory cues, prompts, facilitation, language bombardment, sign language, and lots of other tips and tricks to give your kiddo a boost. Parents can be included in the sessions, given extra ideas and suggestions for home, and observe how the therapist interacts with their kiddo and can model this behavior. Moms and Dads are secret weapons themselves, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t add speech therapy to their arsenal.
What Research Proves What That Means
So, is a child who is late to talk just delayed or do they have an underlying deficit? Will they catch up in 6 months or by first grade? Or will they not catch up at all? Will they ever say mama or love you or talk to their siblings and friends? Is there something wrong? Why aren’t they talking? Despite all the wondering, research, approaches, and options, really the only one question that matters is this: Is it worth the risk?
Language Development Milestone Chart
This chart is a compilation of developmental milestones from 11 reputable sources, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Speech and Hearing Association, to provide the most comprehensive view of what hearing, speech, language, and cognition is expected from birth through 8 years of age
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