Every child develops on their own timeline. This is true with crawling, walking, potty training, and talking.
When it comes to speech, language, and communication, it’s common for children to need extra help meeting developmental milestones expected for their age. That’s why it’s so important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to know how to spot the early signs of a speech delay.
The earlier a child receives speech therapy intervention, the more quickly they can make progress. Early intervention can also decrease the severity of their speech delay over time.
In this article, we review how to identify some early warning signs of a speech-language delay, what developmental milestones to track, and the benefits your child will receive from early speech therapy services.
What are the signs of a speech delay?
While it may seem counterintuitive, you can actually spot many signs of a speech delay before a child even says their first words. Monitoring the milestones for nonverbal areas of communication can help reveal if a child is on track to begin speaking on time. Each of these nonverbal examples is linked to a child’s eventual language development:
Joint attention (a person’s ability to focus on a shared object or event with another person)
The ability to vocalize back and forth through babbling or other utterances
You may be wondering at what point your child should be meeting these preverbal and verbal communication milestones. Check out the helpful milestone chart below broken down by age. You may not have realized that all of these skills are tied to speech and language development!
Babbles and makes various sounds
Turns head toward a sound
Makes consistent eye contact by 6 months
Begins to babble repeated sounds like “mama,” “dada,” or “baba”
Responds to simple activities like “peek-a-boo”
Gives objects upon request
Says “Mama” or “Dada” meaningfully
Begins imitating some animal sounds or environmental sounds
Begins to understand the word “no”
Says first meaningful word
Responds to name
Seeks attention from others
Joint attention should emerge around 9 months
Uses toys/objects appropriately (talks on toy phone, drives a toy car, etc.)
Follows one-step directions
Sits and attends to a book
Uses some words independently
Identifies body parts
Can play in a task with another person for 1-2 minutes
Demonstrates functional play, and using two objects together in play
Points to common objects
Understands at least 50 words
Asks for “more”
Imitates words readily
Uses at least 5-10 words spontaneously
Follows two-step directions
Asks for help or assistance
Uses two-word phrases
Plays independently and watches other children
Identifies parts of an object (such as the wheel on a car)
Relays daily experiences
Identifies complex body parts (wrist, knee, ankle, eyebrow, etc.)
Speaks in sentences
Speech is 80% intelligible, or able to be understood
Answers “what,” “when,” and “where” questions
Plays appropriately with other kids
Understands concepts like “long” and “short” and other descriptive words
Speech skills build upon each other
When it comes to starting speech therapy intervention, one important thing to note is that all speech skills build on each another in a sequential order, a bit like a staircase.
A child typically does not make it up each “stair” without first accomplishing the one before. Here’s a simple example: Before a child begins using sentences, they first need to use single words. If a child is 2 years old and isn't using single words, they are already about one year behind. If, for example, your child does not receive speech intervention for another year, and they haven’t caught up in this area on their own, then they will be about two years behind, since short sentences should begin around 2.5 to 3 years old.
You can save a lot of time, frustration, and anxiety if you receive professional intervention earlier rather than later, reducing the lag your child experiences in reaching these important milestones.
How speech and language relates to school success
One thing many people don’t realize is that strong speech and language skills can be tied to educational and academic success.
When a child begins to grow familiar with words and increases their receptive language skills, they are also learning to listen to the similarities and differences between the structure and sounds of words. This correlates to phonemic awareness skills. Early phonemic awareness (the recognition of speech sounds) is directly linked to early reading success. We want children to be able to identify words that rhyme, and even the sounds that make up words, as they get older and closer to reading age.
If a child struggles with recognizing sounds, this could be a sign that reading may be a challenge for them later on. Check out this helpful article that discusses the link between communication development and literacy skills.
The benefits of working with a speech therapist
A licensed speech therapist is the best route to go when seeking help for your child’s language development. If your child has a speech therapist that sees them consistently, the therapist will understand your child’s communication strengths and weaknesses inside and out. This is helpful when it comes to setting appropriate goals for your child.
At the end of each session, your speech therapist should provide an overview of how your child is progressing. They should also provide specific, 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 30-60 minutes a week, but around the clock, during their everyday life.
Speech therapy can help your child's social and emotional wellness
When children are clear and confident communicators, this greatly helps increase their self-esteem. Think about it: What if you were unable to communicate your thoughts, needs, and wants to other people? What if others had to constantly say, “What?” or ask you to repeat what you said every time you spoke? You'd likely feel quite frustrated. You might shy away from speaking to others, avoid social situations, and deal with feelings of embarrassment or isolation.
The same is true for kids. Strong communication skills help them express their basic needs and form relationships with family and peers. That’s why addressing these issues with professional help early on, before they worsen over time, is so important.
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.