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This week Janine, a licensed speech therapist and mom, of Expressive Speech and Feeding, is here to alleviate the fears many of us have about speech. Since all babies develop at a different speeds, it can be so stressful to compare our babies to others that are ahead in developmental milestones. One big one is speech. She has some great tips below for how to tell when it’s time for help with a child’s speech. And- more often- when you can relax! Enjoy!
Pretty much the day after I gave birth to my now 4 year old son I started looking for signs that he was developing on the right track.
Is he laughing when he is supposed to? Is his finger squeeze as firm as it should be? Is that poop the right color?
And when he missed a major milestone, crawling by 8 months, and then again for walking at 12-14 months, I grew more and more concerned.
Worrying is an inevitable part of motherhood and nothing of which to be ashamed. Actively tracking your child’s development can help you identify issues early and stage interventions early— when they can be the most impactful.
Two months after my son missed his walking milestone, I texted a few of my physical therapy friends. (Having physical therapy friends is definitely a perk of being a pediatric speech therapist).
They told me we were indeed late, but still within a normal baseline and gave me a few exercises to strengthen his core muscles. Viola! A few weeks later we were walking—albeit at 17 months.
Today, you could never tell my son had any issues learning to walk. He is a blur around the house.
I tell this story for a few reasons.
For one, language is very similar to physical development. Just like we don’t expect our kids to be running out of the womb, we don’t expect perfect sounds and language right away.
But also, I want you to know I can relate to the anxiety you are going through and in many cases, with a little bit of help, delayed milestones don’t have to knock a kid off track for long.
Child Speech and Language Milestones
So let’s dive into some common milestones for speech and language sequentially. I’ll let you know when a children on average will start to develop a certain skill or sound and when its time to start thinking about seeking help.
The first speech and language milestones are less about expressive speech (what they say) and more focused on receptive speech (what they can understand). At 3 months we will want to start seeing the baby respond to sounds.
If there was a loud crash across the room and the baby doesn’t divert their attention that way or start screaming, then you may want to consider an audiological evaluation to test hearing.
You may be surprised to learn that babies hearing can be tested so early, but in fact it’s recommended that all babies are tested for hearing loss no later than their first month! Not only that, but every state has an Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EHDI) program that has resource to help.
This is when we want to pay close attention to our babies expressive language. Remember, language is not just the expression of words but verbal communication encompasses the production of sounds too. These sounds are what we should start hearing at 6 months, particularly babbling and laughter. You can encourage vocalizations at this age by making eye contact, tickling, oohing and aahing at your baby and smiling, smiling, smiling!
We still aren’t expecting baby’s first word yet, but we do want to hear certain sounds by 9 months. At this point we will want to hear sounds like b, m, p, d, t, and n. Most of these sounds are made with closed lips and are the easiest to produce. You’ll notice that both D and M are on this list, which is why many children’s first words are “mama” or “dada.”
At this point, baby is expected to understand basic words. It makes sense that the receptive milestone, understanding, comes before the expressive milestone of starting to use words. Common words the baby might start to understand are, “more,” “no,” and “bye.” More is a good word to use repeatedly during feedings to help and gauge their development.
Some parents will encourage early expressive language by using the sign language sign for more during feeding. The sign, which consists of pressing your thumb to your flattened fingers in each hand and bringing them together, is actually easier for the baby to reproduce than the word at this point in their development. If done constantly, you may soon see your baby replicating the motion when they want more food. You’re communicating together now! Studies show that teaching non-verbal language, such as simple sign language, promotes verbal speech. So don’t worry that it will get in the way of baby’s first word!
At this point we will also start to see baby imitate sounds, another good stepping stone to their first word. I’ll often use animal sounds (mooo!) in my therapy sessions targeting early language development for this reason.
Some babies will start their first words around one year of age as well. My first son started speaking at this point. His first real word (communicated with understanding) was “up!” as he demanded his Dad get him out of his playpen. He has been bossing us around ever since.
14 to 18 Months
This is an important milestone. We are expecting to hear multiple simple words like, “yes, no, ball, doggie.” More importantly, it is at this point that you should consider seeking professional help if your little one isn’t speaking yet.
There could be many reasons for this including natural ones. In many cases, a word explosion is just around the corner! However, if this is the case, assess your child’s play and interaction skills. Do they engage in play with others? Do they make eye contact? These are questions a speech language therapist will ask you to help determine potential causes and develop a therapy plan.
Related read: Language Activities for Toddlers
At two years you should start hearing two word sentences from your little one. Fun speech trick: the number of words your child should be able to string together in a sentence will match their age up until they are 5 years old.
From a receptive (understanding) language standpoint, the child should begin processing combination commands. These would be commands like, “go to the playroom AND get the ball.”
Related read: Staying Safe with Outdoor Activities
At this point we are often focusing on articulation milestones. This is how a child pronounces their sounds and the clarity of their speech.
As you may expect, some sounds are harder and naturally take longer to master than others. What surprises a lot of the parents I talk to is the length of a typical development timeline. There are some sounds we don’t expect to be pronounced correctly until 8 or 9 years old.
At three years, the sounds we want to start hearing articulated correctly are: p, b, m, n, w, d, k, and l. Also the h and f sounds when at the beginning of words.
At four years we want to start hearing the g sound articulated correctly. Prior to four years old your child might be “fronting” the sound by placing their tongue at the front of their mouth and saying a d sound instead. A sentence you might here would be something like, “doh det the tar” for “go get the car.”
At five years we should start hearing y at the start of words pronounced correctly as well as the sounds v, kw, and tw. The f sound at the back of words like, “half” should be correct as well.
At 6 years l at the front of the word as well as what speech therapists call l-blends should be articulated correctly. An l-blend is when a consonant directly proceeds the l. Examples would be blue, glue or buckle.
Related read: 8 Fun Ways to Teach Your Kids to Brush Their Teeth
At 7 years your child should start pronouncing the sounds ng, s, z, sh, ska, spl, s-blends, ch, dg and the letter l at the end of sounds correctly. Lisps on the s sound are a common speech difficulty that may require professional intervention.
At 8 years, you will want to start listening for your child’s r sound. It is one of, if not the, hardest sounds in the English language to produce. That is because it can be said correctly with multiple different tongue placements and the sound is different based on where it is located in the word.
It’s Never Too Late
If you keep an ear out for how your child’s speech is developing and have a good understanding of these milestones, you will know when is the appropriate time to intervene.
While I am ending this timeline of speech milestones at 8 years, I want to be clear about two things. Speech issues can pop up at any time in a child’s development and its never to late to have an issue treated by a professional.