Spotting a speech delay in your child—and what to do next

Is a visit with a speech-language specialist in order? Look for these signs in your child’s language.

Spotting a speech delay in your
child—and what to do next

The first 6 months of life are the most crucial to a child’s development of language skills. For a person to become fully competent in any language, exposure must begin as early as possible.


Sure, we parents know that children develop at their own pace. But, it can still be difficult to stop ourselves from comparing our kids’ milestones to others’ in their peer groups. We’ve all been there! The next time you come across a preschooler at the playground who appears well on her way to a career in professional orating, remember that the speed and clarity of language development isn’t a contest.

With this in mind, we may wonder how we can give children the support and guidance necessary to grow on a timeline that’s uniquely right for them while also being aware of the importance of early intervention when there are genuine delays. Knowing what to look for is key.

Think it could be time for an evaluation with a speech-language specialist? The following are a few red flags to look for in a child between the ages of 20 and 24 months:

● Mispronounces vowel sounds or talks using primarily vowels

● Uses a single sound or syllable as a catch-all to name what’s in his or her environment

● Uses a word only once without frequent re-use

● Doesn’t show much progress from one month to the next

● Doesn’t answer questions beyond repeating back all or part of what’s been asked

● Still speaks using only single words

Keep an eye out for any of the above, but know that children under the age of 3 are still learning!

During this time, most children will mispronounce many words, have difficulty using complete sentences regularly, and sometimes say things that are unintelligible even to your well-trained ear.

Substituting one consonant sound for another, blending consonant sounds, or mixing up longer words are common attributes of the language-development process, even in kids as old as 6!

For a child between the ages of 2 and 3, an evaluation is a good idea if a child shows some of these signals:

● Says only specific words or word sounds repeatedly

● Only imitates speech or actions without using new words or phrases

● Is unable to follow simple directions or commands

● Is more difficult to understand than other children around the same age

● Has a raspy, nasal-sounding, or otherwise unusual tone of voice

By age 5, be on the lookout for these markers:

● Not being able to give his or her first and last name

● Not being able to correctly use plurals or past tense verbs (most but not all of the time)

● An inability to understand two-part commands that include prepositions

● A lack of asking the 5 “W” questions (such as “what?” or “why?”)

● Difficulty talking about what he or she has done during the day or in a given situation

Recognizing speech delays is a nuanced process and often isn’t as simple as checking off boxes from a list. Above anything else, trust your instincts. If you’re feeling worried, it’s better to play it safe and reach out to a speech-language pathologist. Ask for a recommendation or referral from your child’s daycare, preschool, or family pediatrician. Just remember, if your little one needs speech-language intervention, this is simply the next step in advocating for your child’s development.


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