What You Need to Know About Language Delays in Toddlers

There’s a lot to keep track of when you have a toddler–including that busy toddler themselves! In addition to your little one’s daily needs and antics, you’re likely watching their overall development. Children grow and change so much, both physically and mentally, in their first few years of life. 

When it comes to language development, there are key signs and milestones to watch for in order to tell if your child has a delay. Here’s what you need to know about language delays in toddlers: what a language delay is, the symptoms of a language delay, and how to help your child if they’re delayed. 

What is a language delay?

Language and speech aren’t actually the same thing. Speech refers to the production of speech sounds using your tongue, mouth, and breath. Language development refers to two things: (1) a child’s ability to learn and understand what’s said to them, called receptive language, and (2) a child’s ability to communicate verbally or nonverbally, called expressive language.

When children don’t develop language at the expected rate, and don’t meet the milestones for their age, this is called a language delay. The cause of a language delay isn’t always known. However, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the most common causes of language delay include:

  • Hearing loss

  • Slow development

  • Intellectual disability

Other disorders that can cause a language delay include autism, selective mutism (in which the child doesn’t walk to talk), and cerebral palsy (a movement disorder caused by brain damage).

What are symptoms of a language delay?

A child with a language delay might have some of these symptoms:

  • Age 12 months: Isn’t using gestures, such as pointing or waving goodbye

  • Age 18 months: Has trouble imitating sounds; has a hard time understanding simple verbal requests

  • Age 2 years: Imitates words or phrases but doesn’t say them on their own; can’t follow simple directions

Watching for the following milestones in your child’s development can help you know if they’re on track or not.

Language milestones from birth to 12 months old

While babies younger than 1 year old probably aren’t talking yet, there are still many important communication skills they should be developing. These skills are the foundation for the first words to come. Take a look at these milestones to see how your child is progressing. 0-3 months

  • Responds to loud sounds

  • Calms down when you talk

  • Seems to recognize your voice

  • Makes cooing sounds

  • Cries change for different needs

  • Smiles

3-6 months

  • Recognizes familiar people and objects

  • Notices toys that make sounds

  • Pays attention to music

  • Makes babbling sounds like “baba”

  • Makes gurgling sounds when playing

  • Responds to being spoken to

  • Makes sounds when happy or upset, such as giggling

6-9 months

  • Responds to words like “No” and “Come”

  • Begins to recognize and respond to their name

  • Follows some basic commands when paired with gestures

  • Babbles with longer strings of sounds (“bababa”)

  • Begins to imitate your sounds and gestures

  • Tries making lots of different sounds

  • Enjoys social interactions

9-12 months

  • Responds to commands like “Come here,” “Sit down,” or “Give it”

  • Looks at familiar people and objects when named

  • Looks at correct pictures in books when named

  • Plays games like peek-a-boo and patty cake

  • Can say their first meaningful words

  • Points or reaches to what they want

  • Waves “Hello” or “Goodbye”

  • Imitates speech sounds, like animal or vehicle sounds

  • Starts to imitate words

Language milestones in 12- to 24-month-olds

12-18 months

  • Follows simple, one-step directions without gestures (such as, “Go get your toys”)

  • Starts using toys for their intended purpose (such as feeding a doll)

  • Identifies one to three parts of the body

  • Enjoys music, social games, and play

  • Can say between 10 and 50 words

  • Learns three to four new words each month

  • Tries to string words together even though the sentences may not be understandable

18-24 months

  • Should understand many different words said to them

  • Has appropriate eye contact with others

  • Has a growing expressive vocabulary

  • May begin using some two-word phrases like “More please”

What to do if you think your child has a language delay

After reviewing the list above, take some time to observe your child’s communication skills. If you feel that your child isn’t meeting their current age expectations, it’s important to talk to a professional. As mentioned above, sometimes delays may be a warning sign of hearing loss, a developmental delay, or autism. 

Your child’s pediatrician is a great place to start. You can call their office or make an appointment to go in and discuss your concerns. Prepare any questions you have ahead of time. 

Your pediatrician will likely suggest seeing a speech therapist for an evaluation. Pediatricians often have a list of speech therapy companies they recommend. If you’re using health insurance to cover speech therapy, it’s likely that your insurance will need a written referral from your pediatrician. So talking with your child’s doctor first makes sense. 

When speaking with any professional, always remember to listen to your gut. You know your child better than anyone else. It’s always all right to ask for a second opinion! You can contact a speech therapy provider directly to ask about a speech evaluation.

Some pediatricians will suggest a “wait and see” approach. But knowing how important early intervention is, it’s usually best to have an evaluation as soon as possible. If your child is evaluated and doesn’t need services, you’ll have peace of mind. And if they do need speech therapy, you’ll know they began treatment as soon as they could.

Speech therapy can help with a language delay

If your child is evaluated and the speech therapist diagnoses a language delay, you may feel overwhelmed and worried. You probably have a lot of questions. Ask your speech therapist all of them! They are there to support both you and your child. Not only will they help your child grow their language skills through therapy, but they’ll teach you how to help your child communicate better at home and in daily life.

How long speech therapy takes is unique to each child and family. Improvement happens a little at a time, not overnight. Language development is complex. There are many milestones along the way, before saying a first word or first sentence. Your speech therapist will point out the new skills your child is gaining that you may not even notice! 

Understanding how to help your child in their language development is a huge step. Helping your child become the best communicator they can be is a gift for them. And the progress you’ll watch them make will be the greatest gift to you.

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