I asked this question shortly before Jack turned 2. Just 3 weeks shy of his second birthday, I was bothered by how few words he used. He wasn’t meeting his speech milestones, so I did what moms do. I jumped onto Facebook (better than Dr. Google, maybe?) and posted in a trusted mom group. I explained his age, his situation, and then asked the dreaded question: “Does my child need speech therapy?”
Within hours, I had replies from 2 different Speech and Language Pathologists (SLPs). Both agreed: he’s borderline, but it takes a while to get in, so we’d go ahead and make an appointment in case you end up needing it. Spoiler alert: I actually didn’t make the appointment, but his preschool offered a free screening, so I now have an official report saying he’s good to go!
Worried About Speech Milestones? You Are Not Alone
Here’s what we really want you to know, mama. If you’re asking the question, “Does my child need speech therapy?” Don’t worry. You are NOT alone.
And, you can be a lot less worried than you think!
According to the Cleveland Clinic’s speech-language therapist, Jaime Richmond Buran, the earlier a child is diagnosed with a speech-language disorder, the “less impact it may have on your child’s academic and social well-being.”
This means that if you’re concerned, it’s good to ask questions! You’re helping your child by doing so.
However, concern on your part doesn’t always mean there’s a problem.
In this article, we roundup facts and statistics regarding speech milestones and speech delay signs for your child. We talk directly with an SLP, tell the story of speech concerns with Jack, and give you clear tips on identifying speech issues for your child.
By the end of this article, we hope to help you answer that oh-so-anxiety-producing question: “Does my child need speech therapy?”
Speech Milestones and Parenting Anxiety
At Undefining Motherhood, we know that any sign your child might be speech delayed can cause severe anxiety for you as a parent.
Specifically, it is very common for parents to wonder whether or not their child’s speech is common for their age.
Parents constantly ask questions like, “How do I know if my child needs speech therapy?” And “When should children start talking?”
It makes so much sense that we ask these things, y’all.
Children are typically not tested for speech and/or language issues until their third birthday. This is according to Atlanta-based Chatterbox Speech and Language Clinic, the clinic that provided screenings at Jack’s preschool.
3 years! That’s basically a solid year-and-a-half of wondering if your kid is where they should be.
And how are we supposed to know? I’d guess that the majority of us aren’t speech therapists.
And for those of us relying on pediatrician visits and Dr. Google, the information varies.
Why are there so many milestones? Why do different books’ and websites’ opinions differ?
Luckily, we’re here to research and write about what makes you anxious as a parent. That’s actually why we wrote this article. A member of our tribe reached out and specifically requested that we research and write about this.
Jack Was Slightly Behind Speech Milestones
I’ve spent Jack’s entire life following milestones, wondering if he was where he was supposed to be. I worried when he didn’t smile early enough. I was nearly sick over his lack of smile. Constantly, I reminded myself that he was born early and my expectations needed to be adjusted by 3 weeks.
When it came to talking, I struggled especially hard with anxiety about speech milestones.
I worried about speech milestones for two major reasons.
- I was in speech therapy as a child because I couldn’t say the “R” or “S” sounds. If Jack needed such intervention, I wanted him to get it as early as possible.
- Jack’s cousin is about his age, and she’s way ahead of him in language development.
I probably worried most for the second reason. I really struggle with comparing Jack to other children. Read about those struggles, and why comparison is a problem, here.
Jack’s cousin Emily is 3 months older than he is. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think she’s 2 years ahead in speech.
When she was not yet 2-years-old, she told me, in a complete sentence, “Hey Kayee! I pay tuttle sci yab toyay.” (Translation: “Hey Katy! I played with a turtle in science lab today!”)
I’m not even exaggerating. Who is this precious little overachiever?
I kept hearing her little voice telling me about science lab when Jack was the same age. But at just shy of 2 years, he barely said comprehensible words.
Counting Words: Does My Child Need Speech Therapy?
So I started counting. My Amazon Echo kept a list of Jack’s words. I swear, someday I’m going to hear him say, “Ayexa, add monkey to Jack’s word list.”
Oh, Alexa, how we love you.
So at 3 weeks shy of 2 years old, when my online SLP friends said to make Jack an appointment with an SLP, I had a different idea.
I decided to really focus on language acquisition. No more answering questions for him. Bye bye giving him what I know he wanted without making him say it.
We already read lots of books, and he pulled out flashcards for fun.
I wondered how much my habits had to do with this.
Now, let me pause and make a serious point. Dearest nervous mama reading this article because you’re worried about your little one, I am NOT blaming you! And I don’t blame myself. But I did wonder if amping up the language game would help.
By his 2-year appointment 3 weeks later, Jack was meeting his milestones. I didn’t even have to ask the dreaded question, “Does my baby need speech therapy?” And when he was evaluated at preschool a few months later, his report was perfect!
What Caused the Change?
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t know what made the difference.
Maybe it was me forcing Jack to use his words more. (Goodness, how sick of that phrase I am. I can hear the Daniel Tiger “Use Your Words” song running through my head as I write this. Oh, parenthood.)
(Watch Daniel Tiger, or as I call it, the life coach for toddlers, on Prime Video. Not an Amazon Prime member? Click here for a 30 Day Free Trial!)
Or maybe it was just that he developed in those 3 weeks. That is what toddlers do, after all, right? They wake up one day with all these skills they didn’t have before.
In our interview with a Speech and Language pathologist below, we’ll outline things you can do to help your better develop your child’s speech to help them reach speech milestones.
But please, please, dear reader. Do me this kind favor. Keep in mind that all children are different, and that even if you’re doing all you can, your child still learns at a different pace from other children.
Know you’re doing your best, and give yourself grace.
How Can You Know If Your Child Is Meeting Speech Milestones?
When one of our beloved readers asked for this article, I wondered how we hadn’t thought to write it already. After all, hadn’t I just been there with Jack? Didn’t I know how much you all worry about whether your child needs speech therapy?
At Undefining Motherhood, we believe in using solid research to help you worry less as a parent. So, we did what we do best here.
We reached out to our network of mothers, specialists, and used some good old-fashioned research methods to write about this for you.
Of course, we also threw in our own personal experience to help you understand that you’re not alone as you navigate this. If you’re worried about speech milestones, mama, you’re probably in the majority!
In addition to my experience with Jack, we also reached out to a licensed speech-language therapist with some questions…
An Interview with a Licensed Speech Pathologist
For this article, we interviewed Shelby Mason, MCD CCC-SLP. Shelby is a Speech-Language Pathologist in a large school system in Alabama. She graciously answered our key questions about this issue.
We’ve started with the basic question that I worried about so much about with Jack. “How do I know If My Child Needs Speech Therapy?” Then, we moved on to speech milestones and causes of speech delay. Finally, Shelby provides some great ways that you can help facilitate your child’s progress! And get this, they’re actually fun things you can do with your kid!
All words in quotation marks are Shelby’s words.
How Do I Know If My Child Needs Speech Therapy?
This is likely the first thing on your mind as you begin to think about whether your child might be behind in terms of his or her speech.
Shelby notes that, “Children vary in their acquisition of language skills. Parents should not be alarmed when their child does not meet every criterion for his or her developmental age.
But if you are concerned that your child may not be developing language skills as he or she should you may seek the advice of a speech language pathologist.”
What causes a speech delay?
“A speech or language delay can have many unknown causes, but several known contributing factors. These include hearing impairment, and the presence of other developmental delays or disabilities including autism and intellectual disability. Speech delay can also be simply due to environmental issues such as neglect or lack of language stimulation.”
It’s important to note, however, that when you think your child might have a speech delay, it’s not necessarily always related to hearing impairment or disabilities.
Children have different rates at which they learn, and it’s important to not always assume the worst when working with a speech delay. Some children could simply be “late talkers.”
What is a late talker?
“A later talker simply exhibits a delay in language onset with no other diagnosed disabilities or diagnoses are present.”
This means that the child is typically developing normally (which is great!), but there are signs of speech delay. If your child is developing normally, like Jack was, and there are no diagnoses of hearing impairment or autism, he or she might be a late talker.
We recommend this article by the Hanen Center for a lot of good information on late talkers. According to the Hanen Center, late talkers comprise about 13% of two-year-olds, and they typically tend to be male children who were born at “less than 85% of their optimal weight or at less than 37 weeks of gestation.” Hello, Jack!
When should children start talking?
Shelby says “children should begin speaking in single words around age 1, follow simple commands, and use words to express wants or needs.”
What are the age milestones for speech?
Thank God, information broken down in one place! Shelby gives the following milestones, but highlights that they’re more “general rules of thumb.” Remember, all children develop differently.
- By age 1, children should be speaking in single words with a vocabulary of 10-20 words.
- By age 2, children should be speaking in 2 word phrases and have a vocabulary of 50-100 words.
- By age 3, children should begin to speak in 3 word phrases with a word for almost everything.
Want an even more detailed list to follow? We love this amazing Milestones Chart from Chatterbox Speech and Language Clinic!
How can I help stimulate my child’s speech at home?
We love Shelby’s answer here because it’s actually fun and stimulating for your child! Here are her suggestions:
- Talking to your child as you care for them throughout the day
- Singing songs
- Asking your child with you to new places and new experiences
- Reading colorful books to your child
- For great book suggestions, check out our article on the best books for babies! Most of the suggestions in the “Introducing Plots” section are fantastic for toddlers!
- Imitating your child’s vocalizations and movements
- Rewarding and encouraging early efforts in producing new words
- Providing social activities that allow your child to interact with peers
These, according to Shelby, are among the best ways to boost your child’s speech acquisition and language skills. Have some fun with your little one while you’re at it!
Understanding the Need for Speech Therapy
One of the best ways to control your parental anxiety is to be informed and to know the steps to take when you feel like something might be wrong with your child. We hope that the interview with Shelby Mason has been helpful, and we also want to provide you with direct steps to take when you feel like your child’s language skills might be behind:
(1) Speak with Your Pediatrician
The Cleveland Clinic suggests speaking with your pediatrician first. Repeated ear infections can sometimes cause hearing loss, which impacts speech and language development. Your pediatrician will be able to assess whether or not there is anything in your child’s medical history that might be impacting his or her speech and language skills.
As we noted earlier in this article, children aren’t normally formally assessed for speech and language issues until three years of age. But if you are concerned, take action!
(2) Find a Good Speech-language Clinic Early
Often, speech-language clinics can be inundated with requests for language therapy. If your pediatrician agrees that your child might need therapy, you’ll want to do the research and have your child formally assessed as soon as possible.
Early intervention is key to getting your child on the right track! Some daycares and mother’s day out programs offer assessment like Jack’s preschool did. If so, it never hurts to have your child assessed. I wasn’t really worried anymore when I agreed to Jack’s assessment. If it was being offered, why not make sure he’s good to go?
Shelby’s interview shows how the key to working on speech-language skills (aside from a speech-language clinic if that’s necessary for your child) is actually YOU. A child’s parents and caregivers have a strong impact on their language acquisition. Read often to your child. Talk to your child. Keep a list of words that he or she is saying.. Explore new places and talk about them. There are so many fun and engaging ways to interact and build language skills with your child.
Interested in other parenting content?
We’d love to hear more about your experience with speech-language delays, anxiety, and what you did to help build your child’s vocabulary!
Did you worry about whether your child needed speech therapy?
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.