If your child doesn’t seem to be on track with their speech and language skills, you might feel concerned. Some parents wonder if they did something to cause their child’s speech problems. Or they may worry that decisions around child care or preschool could be a factor.
If you’re thinking along these lines, set aside the guilt, and don’t panic! Let’s discuss the common causes of speech delay, the role of parents in a child’s speech development, and how you can start helping your child today.
What causes a speech delay?
Here are the most common causes of delay in a child’s speech and language.
1 Oral impairment
Many kids with speech delays have oral-motor problems, which are related to a problem in the areas of the brain responsible for speech. An oral impairment makes it hard to coordinate the lips, tongue, and jaw to make speech sounds. These children also might have other oral-motor issues, such as feeding problems.
2 Developmental speech and language disorder
Some speech and language disorders involve brain function and may reflect a learning disability. Your child may have trouble making speech sounds, using spoken language to communicate, or understanding what other people are saying. Speech and language problems are often the earliest sign of a learning disability.
3 Hearing loss
A toddler who can’t hear well, or who hears distorted speech, is likely to have difficulty forming words. Hearing loss is often overlooked, but the good thing is it’s also easily identified.
One sign of hearing loss is that your child doesn’t acknowledge an object when you say its name, but they do if you use a gesture, like pointing. However, signs of hearing loss may be very subtle. Sometimes a speech or language delay may be the only noticeable sign.
4 Autism spectrum disorder
Speech, language, and communication problems can be early signs of autism.
5 Lack of stimulation
We learn to speak from the people around us. So it’s hard for children to naturally pick up words if people aren’t talking, playing, and interacting with them. Lack of verbal stimulation can delay a child in reaching developmental milestones.
6 Neurological problems
Certain neurological problems, such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and traumatic brain injury, can affect the muscles needed for speaking.
Can parents cause a speech delay in their child?
In extreme cases, a speech or language delay can be caused by neglect, abuse, or traumatic experiences. But the short answer is no: In an attentive home where children are engaged with and cared for, speech problems aren’t caused by parents or caregivers. That’s the case no matter how many children you have, and whether or not your child is in daycare, attends preschool, or is homeschooled.
However, while caregivers don’t cause speech delay, there may be things families do that keep a child’s speech from progressing as well as it could.
Take a look at these three habits that could hinder your child’s speech and language development:
1 Talking for your child
When kids aren’t talking much yet, it’s easy for others to talk for them. Sometimes we may not give our child the chance to answer questions, like what they want to eat or wear. We just don’t ask them! Or maybe the child is asked a question, but those around them, like caregivers and siblings, assume they need to speak for the child.
No matter the situation, not giving your child the chance to talk can hurt their language development. Your child is learning that they can get what they need by having someone else speak for them.
2 Not reading books together
Our daily schedules are often packed. It can be easy to forget to take a few minutes to read with your child. But those minutes matter. One study revealed that when parents read just one book a day to their kiddo, by the time that child entered kindergarten, they’d heard a total of 1.4 million more words than kids who weren’t read to.
Reading with your child helps them improve their vocabulary, learn how to create sentences, and learn how to follow the order of stories. It’s important to read with your child every day, if possible.
To set up a reading routine, pick a time of day when your child is likely to settle down with you. The early evening is a great choice. Your child may be more likely to snuggle up after a long day. Right before naptime is another option that works well for some toddlers.
Try letting your child pick out the book, or choose books with topics and pictures they’re interested in. The more your child likes the book, the more they will absorb.
3 Letting your child use screens too often
It’s so tempting to hand kids a phone or tablet to keep them entertained (and maybe get a little peace and quiet yourself!). It’s impossible to totally avoid screens. But caregivers need to be mindful of how much screen time their child is getting.
Think about it like this. If a child is sitting in front of a screen, they’re not expected to talk or interact. So much speech and language growth occurs when interacting face-to-face with another person, or when doing hands-on activities like playing or making a craft.
Research supports this. For example, one study showed the serious effects of passive screen time on language. Researchers found that before a child turned 1 year old, those who watched more than two hours of TV a day were six times more likely to develop a language delay.
We know families are busy, and these habits don’t happen intentionally! Parenting can be stressful and tiring. The mental and physical load is a lot to manage, and as a result, some caregivers may experience burnout.
There is no shame in feeling burned out. Whether you have one child or three, work outside the home or not–even the most loving caregivers can feel overwhelmed. But the truth is that a well-rested and attentive parent is the best thing for any child. If you’re feeling burned out, learn about the steps you can take to be kind to yourself and feel better. When you’re less stressed and more regulated, you’ll be better able to help your child.
3 ways to support your child’s speech and language at home
There are lots of easy ways to help your child learn to communicate! In addition to reading together and limiting screens, here are three more things you can start doing today.
1 Talk to your child, even if they don’t yet respond
One easy thing you can do is talk to your child often and model new vocabulary words. “Modeling” simply means using those words in front of your child. Kids need to hear language and be engaged in conversation. Even if you don’t think your child will respond to you, talk to them anyway! The important part is to give them the chance.
You can also model conversations with other family members in front of your child. Kids can pick up new words and learn how to have a back-and-forth of conversation by watching others.
2 Play with your child
Playing together is an important way to help your child with speech and language development. Here are two examples:
Playing with a baby doll: Your child can practice naming body parts or saying things like “baby is sleeping” or “night night.”
Playing with toy cars: Your child can make sounds (“vroom!” “beep beep!”) and act out pretend scenarios, such as a race between your car and theirs. Simple phrases like “Ready, set, go!” can help a child learn to use words for a purpose. When they hear or say the word “go,” they know that it means to push the car!
Cause-and-effect is a huge part of communication, and it’s also a big part of play. If a child pulls a block out of the tower, it's going to fall. If they push the button on the toy, it will make a noise. Similarly, if you tell someone what you need, you can get something in return. Play is an amazing way for kids to learn this concept of cause-and-effect.
3 Practice speech at your child’s level
It’s important to have realistic expectations for your child. A child who isn’t talking won’t suddenly start using sentences. Think of speech development as a ladder: kids need to climb up one rung at a time.
If your child isn’t yet talking, and they don’t use gesturing to express what they want, start with teaching them to point or make other gestures.
If your child is using some words, you can focus on teaching functional words. Functional words are ones that can easily communicate a want or a need, such as more, please, help, eat, and drink.
How do you know if your child needs speech therapy?
If you think your child is behind in their communication development, talk to your pediatrician for a referral for speech therapy. You can also contact a speech therapist directly to start a conversation. Speech therapists are trained to diagnose speech and language problems and help kids communicate as clearly as possible. Many children will need this professional help to catch up in their speech and language development.
It’s best to start speech therapy as soon as possible so your child doesn’t fall further behind. Don’t hesitate to contact a speech therapist, even if you simply want to ask some questions. You can talk with an Expressable speech therapist today in a free phone consultation. We’re ready to help!