As a parent or caregiver, we want everything to be "normal" and on track when it comes to our child’s development. Each time you visit the pediatrician or talk with other parents, you're probably hearing some version of these questions: Is your child crawling? Are they eating table foods? Are they walking? Are they talking? All of these milestones, and the inevitable questions that surround them, can make a parent’s head spin--especially if your child is delayed in one of these areas.
A child's first word should happen sometime around their first birthday. Verbal skills gradually build from here. If your child is age 15 months or older and has not said their first word, or seems to be struggling to communicate, this could be a sign of a language delay. A speech or language delay can cause concern for many parents and lead to feelings of frustration and stress. However, it's always better to identify any signs of a communication delay earlier on, so you can take the right steps to promote your child's language skills and help them speak.
What does the term “nonverbal” mean?
The term “nonverbal” is sometimes used when referring to children who aren't talking yet. Let's explore what being nonverbal means, how it impacts children, and what steps to take to help your child.
A child who is nonverbal does not use any words to communicate. They may vocalize different sounds in response to situations or people, but they do not use true words to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. As mentioned previously, the first word should occur around a child’s first birthday. Children may begin naming people, such as “Mama” or “Dada,” naming toys or pictures in books, or using functional words such as “more,” “please,” or “help.”
As children grow their verbalizations, they will develop their ability to label and use words for functional purposes. Once the first word happens, there should be a steady growth to a much more expansive and expressive vocabulary.
If your child isn't talking, it's important to note that this doesn't mean they aren't communicating. Children who are nonverbal may rely on gestures, such as pointing or reaching, to show caregivers what they need. Even the tone of their vocalizations can be a big clue to what they want to say. Vocalizations typically have a pleasant or unpleasant tone, and young children use them to help caregivers understand what they need. However, verbal communication is ideal, and talking is what helps children express their needs most easily.
How should you communicate with your nonverbal child?
Make sure to learn how your child is currently communicating in order to decrease any frustration your child may feel when they're trying to express their needs. It's also vital that you respond to their communication attempts and praise them for it! Helping children understand the benefit of communication will encourage them to communicate even more.
Here’s an example: If your child learns to point to their cup and you respond by handing it to them, they are being rewarded for that communication. The more children practice communication skills--and experience the rewards--the more they will attempt to communicate.
The key is to make sure that you are prompting your child to a more difficult level of communication. Once your child is doing well with gesturing, then it's time to move on to prompting for verbalizations. These could be single sounds or babbling sounds that are similar to the target word. After that is mastered, you should expect that your child will begin imitating and independently using real words to express their thoughts.
When does a nonverbal child need speech therapy?
If your child isn't talking yet, it can be difficult to know when it's time to take action and speak to a professional. It's even more challenging to know what next steps you should take! Let’s review some items to consider in order to decide the best plan of action for your child.
For children who are nonverbal and not progressing in language development, it is best to speak with a pediatrician or a speech therapist. Below are some signs it may be time to speak to a professional:
Your child is 15 months or older and has not spoken their first meaningful word
Your child’s progress in language development seems to have stopped, and you do not notice improvements over a period of one month
Your child’s language development has regressed, or gone backward
Your child experiences frequent frustration in daily life when trying to communicate with you or others
How to begin speech therapy for your child
Pediatricians are trained to screen a child’s communication skills during well-child checkups. You should talk with your child’s doctor at their next checkup, or call their office to schedule a visit earlier. Remember, it's much better to begin treatment for a speech or language delay sooner rather than later!
If your pediatrician feels speech therapy is necessary, they will write a script for speech therapy, and they may have some recommendations for speech therapists. One important thing to remember is that while pediatricians are extremely knowledgeable, a speech therapist is the one professional who can formally evaluate your child and determine if a speech delay is present.
Some pediatricians may encourage a “wait and see” approach. It’s true that some children may just need a little more time to start talking. But if a child is truly delayed in speech, then waiting may do more harm than good. Speech development is an ongoing process, and any delay in one skill will negatively impact the ability to acquire subsequent skills.
Don’t be afraid to talk directly with a speech therapist if you'd like a second opinion.
Don’t be afraid to call and speak directly to a speech therapist near you if you would like a second opinion. Listen to your gut--you know your child best!
Before calling, prepare any questions you have, and make notes about how your child is currently communicating. The speech therapist will need this information in order to determine if a formal speech evaluation is warranted.
How to help your child talk
Regardless of whether your child is receiving speech therapy, there are many ways you can promote language development and growth at home. Helping a child learn to talk requires lots of patience, opportunities to practice, and encouragement from caregivers. Try these tips when helping your child become more verbal.
Prompt your child to communicate using one skill level above where they currently are in development.
If they cry to communicate wants and needs, help them learn to gesture and point to what they need.
If they are able to use gestures but do not vocalize, model the first consonant of the word you want your child to say.
If they are able to use consonants or babbling sounds, model the actual word your child should imitate.
Once your child is able to imitate a word from you, pause and wait expectantly when your child is attempting to request something. This will help them learn to use words spontaneously.
Use regular, daily situations to practice language growth, like mealtime, running errands, and playing together. Children learn best during daily routines and play activities.
Know that it takes a lot of time and repetition of tasks for children who are delayed in language to acquire more words. Don’t overwhelm your child with stressful practice. Keep it lighthearted and fun!