Why Is My 3-Year-Old Not Talking?

If your 3-year-old isn’t talking, you may have a lot of questions going through your mind. Is it normal for a 3-year-old to not talk yet? Will they start talking on their own? Are they just a “late bloomer”?

Learning about the typical speech and language milestones for a 3-year-old is a good place to start. Keep reading to find out the communication skills expected at this age, common reasons your preschooler may not be talking, and where to go from here. 

Speech and language milestones for 3-year-olds

“Speech” and “language” are actually two different things. Speech refers to how we say sounds and words using our mouth, lips, and tongue. Language refers to how we understand words and put them together to communicate our thoughts, wants, and needs.

Even if your toddler isn’t speaking yet, you can look at their receptive language skills. Receptive language refers to the words your child understands, not the words they say.

Some receptive language skills for 3-year-olds include:

  • Can identify colors by name 

  • Understands names of shapes

  • Understands family names (sister, grandma, etc.)

  • Begins to understand descriptive words like “big” or “bumpy”

  • Can follow multistep directions (“Put down your backpack, put your shoes by the door, then go sit at the table”)

Toddlers typically say their first word at around 12 months old. Their expressive language skills, or their ability to communicate their thoughts and needs, continue to grow from there. During a child’s second year, they should demonstrate the following skills:

  • Speaking in two-word phrases

  • Having a spoken vocabulary of around 50 words

  • Engaging in short conversations

  • Beginning to use pronouns, such as me, my, mine

  • Beginning to communicate their feelings and emotions verbally, rather than physically

  • Possibly trying to answer simple questions

  • Asking for things verbally

It’s true that all children develop at their own pace. But if your 3-year-old hasn’t yet developed some of these skills, or isn’t yet talking, it’s a good idea to schedule a speech evaluation.

What might cause a speech delay in 3-year-olds?

It’s estimated that almost 8% of children in the U.S. have a speech, language, or swallowing problem.

A few years ago, a national survey assessed children’s development from ages 3 to 17. The data showed that of the children found to have a speech or swallowing delay:

  • 5% had speech problems, or issues related to articulation of speech sounds

  • 3.3% had language problems, or difficulty understanding and using words and sentences to communicate

Another way to frame it: About 1 in 12 children in the U.S. has a delay in communication abilities.

There are many reasons children may not begin talking on time. Here’s a look at why a 3-year-old may be a late talker:

Hearing problems

Any hearing loss can have a direct impact on speech and language development. If a child isn’t able to hear all the sounds in their language, that will affect their ability to clearly hear words and understand their meaning. They also will have difficulty learning how to pronounce words.

If your 3-year-old is delayed in speaking, it’s vital to rule out any hearing loss as soon as possible.

Oral-motor issues

Some children have a tough time with oral-motor movement. This refers to the ability to coordinate their lips, tongue, and jaw to produce speech. Sometimes a condition called childhood apraxia of speech causes these oral-motor difficulties. A licensed speech therapist can evaluate your child to determine if apraxia is present.

Learning disabilities

A speech and language delay may exist by itself. It may also be related to learning disabilities. Some of these include autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, intellectual disabilities, and developmental disabilities.

Neurological problems

If a child has an underlying neurological problem, this can affect their ability to speak clearly. Cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and traumatic brain injury are a few examples of diagnoses that can impact speech.

Environmental factors

Three-year-olds need to play every day! They need to be stimulated by different play activities in order to develop language skills. If a child isn’t talked to often, isn’t hearing language spoken around them, and doesn’t have many chances to play, they may be more at risk for a communication delay. This is a great example of why cutting down on screen time is so important for speech and language development.

Developmental delay

Some children may not have other developmental delays, but for some reason they are delayed specifically in speech and language. Speech therapy is essential to help them catch up.

How to get a speech evaluation for your 3-year-old

If you're concerned about your preschooler's speech, trust your instincts. Ask your child's pediatrician for a referral for speech therapy. You can also contact a speech therapist directly for a speech and language evaluation. The evaluation will allow the speech therapist to assess your child’s needs and create a treatment plan to help them communicate more clearly. 

The earlier a child starts speech therapy, the more quickly they can make progress. Early intervention can also decrease the severity of your child’s speech delay over time. So if your 3-year-old doesn’t seem to be on track, it’s important to schedule an evaluation as soon as possible.

As a first step, you can schedule a free phone consultation with a licensed speech therapist at Expressable. We’re here to answer your questions and discuss possible next steps. 

4 ways to help your 3-year-old with their speech at home

In addition to speech therapy with a professional, there is a lot that families can do to help their toddler or preschooler at home. And it doesn’t require any big changes or expensive devices–just simple, everyday interactions. Let’s review them together.

1 Get down to your child’s level and play!

Many people don’t realize that play is such a huge part of a child’s development. Did you know that play mimics communication? When we play with someone, one person takes a turn, then the other person, and so on. These back-and-forth actions are similar to communication.

Taking the time to play with your child can make a big difference in their speech and language development! If you're not sure where to start, try these fun and practical playtime ideas.

2 Make time to read together every day

Spending time reading with your little one can have amazing benefits for their communication skills. One study showed that children who are read one book a day are exposed to 78,000 extra words per year. How incredible is that?

Reading together allows your child to learn more words, understand how sentences are structured, and even grow their phonological awareness skills. This refers to a child’s ability to recognize the sounds that make up words and their meanings. Phonological awareness is linked to a child’s academic abilities as they grow older.

Plus, reading together helps strengthen your bond with your child. So make storytime part of your daily routine!

3 Practice imitation skills

Imitation abilities are important for a child’s speech and language development. If your child isn’t yet mimicking any sounds, then spend some time practicing animal sounds, or the sounds of trains and cars. They tend to be fun and motivating for toddlers to copy!

Once your child is imitating these sounds, you can move on to speech sounds such as vowels and consonants–think simple babbles like “ma-ma.” As your child improves in this area, you can move on to simple word imitation.

If you’ve tried all of this and your child is still struggling with verbal imitation, try gesture imitation. Children have to learn to copy gestures and movements before moving on to speech. These can be simple gestures such as waving, blowing kisses, and clapping hands.

4 Model language for your child

One of the simplest and most effective things you can do for your kiddo is to model language for them. It’s easy: Just talk to them often, even if they don’t respond to you. Children learn so much from the people they spend the most time with. Your child can learn words, the meaning of words, and how to pronounce them simply just by watching and listening to what you do!

Remember, as your child’s caregiver and advocate, you play an incredibly important role in their life. Here at Expressable, we are honored to walk alongside families going through situations that may be similar to yours. We are always here to be a source of information and support.

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