Kids don’t just say the darnedest things. They also pronounce those things in the darnedest ways.
When children are learning to talk, errors in their speech production are common. Maybe your child is experiencing a lisp, or a stutter, or they’re mispronouncing certain sounds, syllables, or words. As a parent or caregiver, it can be tempting to regard these speech problems as cute or endearing. After all, hearing your little kiddo say “nana” instead of “banana,” or “oos” instead of “juice,” is kind of adorable… until it’s not anymore. While some children will “outgrow” their speech problems over time, others do not. These speech issues can persist into adulthood, affecting your child’s intelligibility, academic achievement, confidence and self-esteem, and their ability to clearly express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
Our speech patterns become more habitual over time, meaning that as children grow older, speech is generally harder to correct.
What’s “cute” at age 3 can be worrisome at age 5. In addition, our speech patterns become more ingrained and habitual over time, meaning that as children grow older, speech is generally harder to correct.
Even if these issues seem harmless in your child’s early years, parents and caregivers should stay proactive and closely monitor their child’s progress and development. If you notice your child struggling to reach speech and language milestones appropriate for their age, it’s important to seek professional help.
Speech errors that are commonly overlooked
Children can experience a full range of communication challenges as they develop their language abilities. Below are a few common disorders that routinely get brushed off as “cute” or “charming.” These deserve close attention because of their probability to persist or worsen as children enter their school years.
Stuttering: Stuttering is a natural part of language learning, and many of us have experienced a short period of disfluency at one point in our lives. Individuals that stutter may repeat sounds and syllables, prolong sounds, or routinely pause or use interjections (like “um”) when speaking. Unfortunately, nearly 25% of people that experience a stutter in childhood will not outgrow it. This can have a major impact on their daily lives, including feeling a loss of control, lack of self-esteem, fear of being teased or bullied, and being anxious in school or social interactions.
Lisp: Lisping is one of the main culprits that commonly gets overlooked as harmless. Yes, lisps are relatively common. And yes, many children use the “th” sound when trying to pronounce “s” or “z” during early childhood development. However, if lisps are not properly addressed early on, they can persist into adulthood, affecting a child’s ability to be understood as well as their social and emotional well-being.
Articulation disorders: Children with articulation errors commonly pronounce certain letters and sounds atypically compared to other children their age. Articulation errors can include omitting certain sounds (such as saying “cool” instead of “school”), adding sounds (saying “joosk” instead of “juice”), substituting sounds (saying “wabbit” instead of “rabbit”), or distorting sounds, which is common in people with lisps. In general, children should be able to correctly pronounce all sounds by 8 years of age. However, speech therapy intervention is generally recommended before age 8 if a child’s speech patterns are atypical.
When to seek speech therapy for your child
No two children are the same, and everyone’s developmental timeline happens at their own pace. Some children who experience momentarily speech delays will be talking a mile a minute within the next few months. Others who show exceptional progress early on can suddenly experience a bump in the road.
What’s important is not to ignore or brush off these issues. Even common speech errors that may seem harmless to the untrained ear can be signs of a larger, more serious problem. In other words, what’s cute today may not be cute tomorrow.
As mentioned, the longer an incorrect speech pattern persists, generally the more difficult it might be to correct. If you notice that your child is struggling to communicate, is hard to understand by unfamiliar listeners, has lingering speech errors, or is lagging behind other children their own age, it’s recommended that you consult your doctor.
If you're concerned about your child's communication, you can also take our quiz to find out if a speech evaluation is recommended.
In many cases, your doctor will refer you to a speech-language pathologist, which is a communication specialist trained to evaluate, diagnose, and treat speech and language problems. The sooner you can intervene with professional help, the more progress your child will make toward improving their speech abilities. If you're concerned about your child's communication development, you can also take our quiz to find out if a speech evaluation is recommended. You can discuss your results with a licensed speech therapist for free.