If you suspect your child is a “late talker” or has a speech delay, you may be wondering: Will a speech delay go away on its own? Will my child eventually talk? Does my child need speech therapy?
In this article, we explain what a speech delay is, the signs of a speech delay to look for, and how children with a speech delay can “catch up” with their peers.
What is a speech delay?
Speech and language skills begin with a baby’s slightest cooing. As the months pass, babies eventually begin to babble. This soon progresses to one of the most joyous moments for a parent: their child’s first understandable words.
A speech delay is when a child doesn’t meet these typical speech milestones. It’s a common developmental problem that affects as many as 10% of preschool children.
What causes a speech delay?
A speech delay may mean that your child’s timetable is simply a little different. They’ll eventually catch up, at their own pace. But speech delays can also signal an issue with your child’s overall physical and intellectual development.
Here are some common underlying causes of speech delays:
Oral impairment: Many kids with speech delays have oral-motor problems. A problem in the areas of the brain responsible for speech makes it hard to coordinate the lips, tongue, and jaw to talk. These children also might have other oral-motor problems, such as with feeding.
Developmental speech and language disorder: Some speech and language disorders involve brain function and may be a sign of a learning disability. Your child may have trouble making speech sounds, using spoken language to communicate, or understanding what other people are communicating. Speech and language problems are often the earliest sign of a learning disability.
Hearing loss: A toddler who can’t hear well or hears distorted speech is likely to have difficulty forming words. Hearing loss is often overlooked, but fortunately it’s also easily identified. One sign of hearing loss is that your child doesn’t acknowledge a person or object when you name them, but they do if you point or gesture. However, signs of hearing loss may be subtle. Sometimes a speech or language delay may be the only noticeable sign.
Autism spectrum disorder: Speech, language, and communication problems can be early signs of autism.
Neurological problems: Certain neurological problems, such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and traumatic brain injury, can affect the muscles needed for speaking.
Lack of stimulation: We learn to speak from those around us. So it’s hard for children to naturally pick up speech if they’re not being spoken to, hearing language around them, or interacting with other people. Lack of verbal stimulation can keep a child from reaching developmental milestones.
Signs of a speech delay
There are lots of communication milestones your child will reach as they grow. But here are a few key skills to watch for if you think your child might be at risk of a delay:
By 12 months:
By 18 months:
Your toddler prefers using gestures instead of vocalizations (sounds) to communicate
Has trouble understanding simple verbal requests, such as “Give me your cup”
By 24 months:
Your 2-year-old can only imitate speech or actions; they don’t say words or phrases spontaneously
Says only some sounds or words repeatedly, and can't use speech to communicate more than their immediate needs
Can't follow simple directions
By 36 months:
Upon turning 3, your toddler doesn’t use at least 200 words
Doesn’t ask for things by name
Their speech is hard to understand, even if you live with them
Can a speech or language delay go away on its own?
Many parents want to know if children with speech delay will eventually talk. With the right support at home, some children can catch up in their communication skills. Several factors play a role in whether this is possible, such as neurological issues or a cognitive delay that may need professional support.
The severity of the speech and language delay is also a factor. The more severe a child’s delay is, the less likely it may be to go away on its own. Speech therapy may be needed in order for the child to make progress.
The more severe a child’s delay is, the less likely it may be to go away on its own.
With all these possible factors, it’s always best to have your child evaluated by a speech therapist. Even if they only need speech therapy for a short time, it’s better to do it as soon as possible, to avoid the chance of your child falling further behind in their development.
As communication skills develop, they build on one another. In other words, the skills that typically develop at a certain age are necessary in order for the next skills to develop, and so on. Think of it like a ladder or a staircase. Kids have to make their way up each “step” in order to reach their communication milestones.
Speech delays can affect kids socially and academically
What is the impact of a speech or language delay as a toddler grows older?
A recent study looked at 7,390 8-year-old children. These children had , which meant they still had trouble pronouncing certain speech sounds past the age that children should have speech sound errors. The kids themselves, as well as their parents and teachers, answered questions to assess any symptoms of depression or behavior problems. To follow up, the kids and families were given questionnaires and interviews again at ages 10, 11, and 12. The study found that 8-year-old children with a speech delay were more likely to have difficulty forming friendships when they were 10 and 11 years old.
The study found that 8-year-old children with a speech delay were more likely to have difficulty forming friendships a few years later.
Other research has looked at the effects of speech and language delays on school performance. The emotional effects of speech and language problems can become more pronounced once children enter school. Suddenly, they’re surrounded by children their own age. They’re interacting with kids who may be more advanced in their communication abilities. Children often notice these differences and become self-conscious about the way they talk and communicate.
Academic performance can often suffer as a result. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, children with communication problems are more likely to struggle with reading and writing skills.
The more children focus on their own self-image, or fear being teased or rejected by their peers, the less time they spend focused on reading, writing, comprehension, and other academic skills. In addition, they may be less likely to participate in the classroom. Poor grades and lower confidence can contribute to this cycle of self-doubt if children don’t receive the support they need.
Speech therapy can help children with speech delay
The importance of speech therapy in helping kids with speech and language delays can’t be overstated. There are many things families can do at home to support their child’s communication. However, a speech therapist can determine the cause of your child’s delay, assess their specific needs, and develop a treatment plan tailored to them.
While your child is in speech therapy, your speech therapist should provide weekly home exercises and activities that target exactly what your child needs to practice. Practice at home is extremely important. It helps your child maintain their progress between sessions. This way, your child isn’t just practicing their speech and language skills for 30 or 60 minutes a week, but around the clock, during their everyday life.
If you're concerned about your child's speech, trust your instincts. Ask your child's pediatrician for a referral, or reach out directly to a speech therapist for a speech and language evaluation. Early intervention is the key in helping kids become clear, confident communicators.