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Early Childhood Development

Developmental milestones and the signs of speech and language delay

The first three years of a child’s life are their most formative in terms of learning speech and language. This is a time when their brain is rapidly developing and absorbing all the language around them. Children at this age greatly benefit from a language-rich environment, with consistent exposure to sights, sounds, and speech from the people and world around them. 

The stages of early language development are universal. A baby’s cries soon turn into cooing and babbling, and their first words follow shortly after. These foundational language skills are essential to building more complex communication that allows children to clearly express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. 

How do you know if your child may have a developmental delay? These early years are when caregivers routinely ask themselves, “What’s normal?” Children don’t come with a handbook, and it can be difficult to know what stage of development your child is in and whether they’re hitting milestones appropriate for their age. While it can be tempting to take a “wait and see” approach, you may be missing early warning signs that mean extra help is needed. There’s a lot to consider!

When it comes to early language development, educating yourself is the best way to make informed decisions. For that reason, we’ve put together this informational guide to answer common questions about early language development, review important milestones your child should be reaching, identify signs of a delay, and discuss treatment options.

1What are speech and language development milestones?

2Common developmental delays in children

3What are the risk factors of a developmental language delay?

4What is early intervention and why is it so important?

5How does Expressable help grow and rehabilitate language skills?

6How can parents support their child’s language growth at home?

What are speech and language development milestones?

Learning speech and language skills follows a universal timeline. That means that all children will make babbling sounds before they say their first word, and they'll say their first word before they can complete a sentence. 

With that said, there’s a lot of variation in when children reach these crucial developmental milestones. However, there is an expected age range for what’s considered “typical.” The guidelines below help doctors, healthcare professionals, speech-language pathologists, and other clinicians better understand whether a child is on track or needs some extra help. 

Milestones during infancy

Language development begins even before your child is born! In the later stages of pregnancy, an unborn baby will start to absorb and acclimate to the sounds coming from outside the mother’s body. From your child's very first cries, they’re already starting to communicate. And these skills only grow as they watch your face while you talk and begin to imitate your sounds. 

Milestones for birth to 3 months

  • Calms down or smiles when spoken to

  • Makes cooing sounds

  • Recognizes your voice

  • Cries differently depending on their needs

Milestones for 4-6 months

  • Starts babbling in a way that resembles speech (babbles are strung-together consonant-vowel combinations like “baba” or “mimi”)

  • Begins to laugh!

  • Eyes begin to follow the direction of sounds

  • Responds to changes in the tone of your voice

  • Pays attention to music

  • Laughs

  • Makes gurgling sounds when alone or playing with you

Milestones for 7 months to 1 year

  • Can say one or two words by their first birthday

  • Enjoys simple games, like playing peek-a-boo

  • Understands basic words like “juice”

  • Responds to requests like “come here”

  • Communicates using gestures, such as waving or holding up arms

  • Imitates different speech sounds

Milestones for toddlerhood

During your child’s second year of life, language begins developing momentum. Kiddos should be adding new words to their vocabulary each month. Toward the end of their 2nd birthday, they should start to understand that words and language are how they express their thoughts, needs, and feelings. This is also a time when there may be more variation among children's development. 

Milestones for 1- to 2-year-olds

  • Learns new words on a regular basis--building their vocabulary!

  • Begins stringing two words together, like “more juice” or “give me”

  • Can say words that start with different consonant sounds

  • Follows basic commands and can understand simple questions

  • Enjoys rhymes, songs, and stories

  • Can point to pictures in a book when they’re named

Milestones for 2- to 3-year-olds

  • Has built a vocabulary of more than 400 words

  • Begins to use two- and three-word phrases

  • Family and friends can understand what they’re trying to say most of the time

  • Can pronounce the sounds /k/, /g/, /f/, /t/, /d/, and /n/

  • Will name objects when making a request

Milestones for preschoolers

By now, children should have undergone a major growth spurt and added hundreds of words to their vocabulary. As opposed to just imitating the sounds and words they hear, they should start to produce unique sentences to better express themselves. In addition, the majority of their language should be easily understood by others, even people that are not familiar with your child.

Milestones for 3- to 4-year-olds

  • Responds when their name is called from another room

  • Answers simple “WH” questions, like “Who?” “What?” “Where?” and “Why?”

  • Talks about their day, such as activities at school or their friends’ homes

  • Begins putting four or more words together to create sentences

Milestones for school-age and beyond

As children enter school, you should continue to see a rapid maturation and expansion of their communication abilities. Beyond the age of 5, children should continue to double their vocabulary on a regular basis. These foundational language abilities will become vital as they learn to read around the ages of 6 or 7, with their comprehension abilities occurring around 8 to 9 years of age.

Milestones for 4- to 5-year-olds

  • Speaks in full sentences with detailed and descriptive language

  • Says most sounds correctly, although may still struggle with a few (such as /r/, /ch/, /sh/, and /th/)

  • Can read a story and then answer simple questions about what happened

  • Understands most verbal and written communication

  • Can hold a short conversation and stay on topic

  • Begins to use adult grammar

  • Follows commands and asks lots of question

Common developmental delays in children

Early language developmental delays can be caused by a variety of factors. Children learn and absorb language from regular interactions with their loved ones. Lack of language stimulation and one-on-one attention early in life can set a child back.

There are also physical and neurological issues that can play a role in language delays. These can be caused by the following.

Physical disorders:
  • Hearing impairment

  • Learning disability

  • Autism spectrum disorder

  • Klinefelter syndrome (a genetic condition in which males are born with an extra X chromosome)

  • Maturation delay (slower-than-average development of the speech centers of the brain)

Brain damage or neurological disorders:
  • Aphasia: A rare disorder in children that can result when parts of the brain responsible for language are damaged, making it difficult for children to understand or use language

  • Childhood apraxia of speech: A neurological condition that disrupts the signals sent from a person’s brain to their mouth muscles (lips, jaw, and tongue), making it difficult to plan speech sound movements

What are the risk factors of a developmental language delay?

As mentioned earlier, children progress at different rates and hit language milestones at different times in their life. However, there are some clear signs that may mean a child is at risk for language problems. These signs are particularly relevant if your child is between 18 and 30 months of age and has not started speaking as well as they should.

  • Understanding language: There are many important language milestones your child should reach even before they’ve spoken their first words. If your child seems to understand language spoken to them, there’s a greater chance that they’ll catch up. For example, when you name objects, they should be able to point to them. They should also be following simple directions, like “come here” or “sit down.”

  • Using gestures: Simple gestures are one of the first ways that young children communicate. The more your child uses and understands this type of nonverbal communication, the more likely that strong language skills will follow. Common examples of gestures include pointing to objects, waving “hi” and “bye,” or putting their arms in the air when they’d like to be picked up.

  • New words: Even if your child hasn’t yet developed an expansive vocabulary, or isn't speaking at a level typical for their age, they should still be learning new words on a regular basis. You should notice that they’re adding new words to their vocabulary every month, and even stringing these words together to create simple phrases or ask questions. If you’re not hearing new words often, it’s more likely they have a language problem.

What is early intervention and why is it so important? 

Speech and language skills build upon one another in sequential order. As mentioned, a child will not start using words until they’ve started imitating sounds, and will not speak in sentences until they’ve said their first word. It is very uncommon for children to “leapfrog” over these important stages of language development.

Some caregivers may believe that their child will simply outgrow their language delay, leading them to take a “wait and see” approach. However, the longer that intervention is delayed, the more likely your child is to fall further behind. Children are then at risk of losing precious time during one of the most critical learning phrases of their life.

Early intervention is often delivered to children and their families from birth to age 3, and it can extend until age 5. While this intervention is different for each child and will depend on their needs and priorities, it often involves working with a speech-language pathologist and/or other providers that make up each child’s early intervention team. They’ll work with your child to improve:

  • Communication skills, such as gesturing, imitating, speaking, listening, and understanding language

  • Cognitive skills, such as learning and problem-solving

  • Social-emotional skills, such as empathy, understanding feelings, playing with peers, and forming and maintaining relationships

Early intervention can also benefit your child’s educational success, as well as their self-esteem. 

On the educational front, strong speech and language skills are related to 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 in the structure and sounds of words. This links to phonemic awareness skills. Early phonemic awareness (the recognition of speech sounds) is directly related 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.

Clear and confident communication is also key for a child’s self-esteem. Think about it--what if you were unable to communicate to others your needs and wants? What if others had to constantly say, “What?” or ask you to repeat what you said? This would be extremely frustrating. It might even make you shy away from speaking with others and avoid social situations all together. The same is true for kids. Strong communication skills help them to express basic wants and needs, and form relationships with family and peers. That’s why addressing these issues with professional help early on, before they grow worse, is so important.

How does Expressable help grow and rehabilitate language skills? 

Expressable matches families with a certified speech therapist who specializes in early intervention and is trained to evaluate and treat early developmental delays.

At this young age, the most effective treatment approach involves training caregivers on cues and strategies they can use during daily interactions with their child. While Expressable’s speech therapy is delivered online via face-to-face video conferencing, these sessions largely involve parent coaching and support. That way you can be empowered to improve your child’s communication skills at home. 

In addition, all Expressable clients have access to our client portal, which features educational Learning Paths covering the strategies taught in therapy sessions. You can access examples, tips, demo videos, quizzes, and more. Plus, through the portal, you'll receive weekly home practice activities tailored to your child's needs. The more you and your child practice speech therapy techniques at home, between sessions, the faster you'll see progress!

How can parents support their child’s language growth at home?

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of caregiver involvement in the early years of your child’s language growth. After all, who spends more time speaking and interacting with your child than you? When you simply talk with your child, you're creating an environment that supports language development.

Here are a few simple ways you can support your child’s language abilities:

  • Narrate your life: Even if your child isn’t speaking, narrate what you're doing in the moment. You can say “I’m eating now,” or “Let’s brush our teeth.” This can feel a little odd, but it will help children begin making connections between the actions they’re performing and the words used to describe them.

  • Offer choices: Regularly offer your child choices, like what they want to eat or wear. Whenever possible, provide verbal and visual input together: “Would you like an apple…or a banana?” This not only motivates your child to speak, but gives them a taste of independence! They’ll soon learn that communication is key to getting what they want.

  • Model sounds and speech: If your child is nonverbal, modeling sounds will encourage them to imitate you. If you hear a car engine, say “vroom vroom,” or if you see a dog, say “ruff ruff.” If your child is already talking, model phrases that are one word longer than what they're using. For example, if they reach for a beverage and say “juice,” you can model, “Juice please,” or “I want juice.”

  • Read regularly: Reading helps children expand their vocabulary, recognize sentence structure, improve comprehension, and stimulate their imagination! As with most things, it’s best to start early. Creating reading habits with infants and toddlers helps support early literacy development. When your child is able to participate, ask them to identify different items in photos. If they’re a little older, ask thought-provoking questions, like “Why did the character feel that way?” or “What do you think will happen next?”

  • Play together: One of the best ways caregivers can promote strong communication skills is also one of the simplest: playing with their child. The natural back-and-forth of playtime mimics how we communicate. For example, rolling a ball between you and your child requires turn-taking, just like a conversation. Playing with your child also helps improve their joint attention (ability for two people to focus on the same task) and understanding of cause-and-effect relationships (stack the blocks too high and they’ll come tumbling down).

  • Sing songs: For many children, it can be easier to learn new words when they’re incorporated into song. From “Itsy, Bitsy Spider,” to “The Wheels on the Bus,” children love singing simple songs and nursery rhythms. Not only do they provide some great family bonding time, but songs can build vocabulary and help children learn and recognize the natural rhythm of speech. Best of all, there are so many opportunities to weave enjoyable songs into the day, such as during long car rides and bathtime.

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