My child isn’t talking yet…should I be worried?
This is one of the most common childhood development questions we get at Mi Casa Es Tu Casa®, where we offer a Spanish immersion music and language experience for families with babies and toddlers.
And it’s no surprise that we would get that question, since our families are already very involved and attentive to their children’s growth.
It’s natural to be concerned!
When should my child be talking?
It’s tempting to latch onto a specific timeline or formula for all of the milestones our children will go through, especially talking. In fact, visits to the pediatrician, where our doctors use a one-size-fits-all formula to check off our child's developmental progress, is often the cause of parents' anxiety around whether our child is "keeping up."
But, as with smiling, eating, walking...each child makes headway at different times.
Children do not need to say a certain number of words by a certain age to be making healthy progress. Age indicators in language development milestones are arbitrary!
Read on to learn what you should really be paying attention to.
If we know what to look for, we can see clues in our children that don’t involve output (speech) but still indicate they are learning language at an age-appropriate pace.
For example, at 18 months, if your baby can “recognize names of familiar people” and “follow simple directions accompanied by gestures,” you should celebrate just as much as when your baby says their first word. They are all language milestones indicated by the Mayo Clinic.
Sometimes we confuse being a “late talker” with having a speech delay. The latter might require intervention from a speech language pathologist, but talking “late” isn’t something to be concerned about, especially when the rest of your child's communication skills are progressing.
Creating a positive space for language development
It’s so easy to compare your child’s progress to another child’s. But it can be misleading. Being informed about language acquisition allows you to see the full picture of your child's development (beyond how many words they can say).
How much your child can say is only one part of a complex language learning process.
Being informed may also empower you, as a parent, to focus on what your child is doing well, rather than on what is missing. There are multiple ways of communicating and not all of them are verbal, such as
Pointing out all of the colors when asked.
Signing when asking for things they want.
Taking your hand and showing you what they want when the words won't come.
This refocusing of your energy is good for your heart, and creates a positive space for growth in your child as well. Parents are under a high amount of social pressure both from peers and from the arbitrary milestones created so that pediatricians can conveniently screen and process families rather than take the time to understand each child as a separate and unique human being.
As Dr. Carrie Contey suggested in our recent interview with her, "If you find yourself, as a parent, getting anxious and worrying... get support around that, because -- they walk and now you're worried about them not talking. Then they talk and now you're worried about them not reading."
The "worry part," she says, is coming from the parent and is the the parents' to work on. She points out that we should be careful not to make our children feel like there's something wrong.
How language develops
Every baby in the world goes through the same process for learning language, but some stay in certain phases for longer and some speed ahead.
In early language development, babies recognize sounds: turning their eyes or head towards your voice, smiling in reaction to something you say, growing wide-eyed when you sing. They are communicating!
Then they produce baby babble, experimenting with the sounds they're hearing around them. And from there, they begin attaching meaning to words. Baby's eyes may go to the word you say like “Doggy.” Words are no longer just a fascinating series of sounds, they have meaning!
From meaning, comes use. Babies and toddlers will eventually begin communicating, sometimes with signs, sometimes with words. Using signs can be way easier than using words for some little humans. Consistent reliable signs should be acknowledged as a fine way of communicating.
Eventually, toddlers and preschools begin producing speech: They may start putting sounds together to form words they can use (dada, wawa). Or they may stay mostly silent and observing before eventually producing a 2 or 3-word sentence out of the blue: "More milk mama.'
The most important thing to look for are signs that your child's comprehension and ways of communicating are steadily progressing.
If your child is not verbal and you are also not seeing the other signs of language development, understanding, and communication above, it's a good idea to have an evaluation done with a speech language pathologist.
For example, if your child is over 12 months and does not respond when you call their name. If your child rarely makes eye contact, or isn't interested in social interaction with other people, including you or other children. These are all indicators that you should seek a professional evaluation.
How can I help my child’s language development?
1. Talk to them: The number one way of encouraging language development in children is to talk to them! It’s how we all learn language. Look them in the eye and talk directly to them; tell them what they’re seeing; point things out to them in picture books. Imitate their babble back to them, and when they do begin producing actual words, repeat what they are trying to say, modeling correct, complete words and sentences.
2. Model and/or Correct Even though mispronounced words are cute, if we don't correct them, they will stick around and your child with have a harder time speaking clearly later. Sounds like "wobin" instead of "robin" need to be corrected/modeled with the appropriate pronunciation as soon as possible. Whenever possible, ask them to repeat after you.
3. Read to them: Read every book you can get your hands on. Making time to read together forms healthy emotional connections and exposes your baby to more vocabulary and expands their understanding of the world. We have a list of bilingual books we love.
4. Sing, sing, and sing some more!. You can read more about how closely aligned music development and language development is in this post from us. Young children exposed to musical rhythms go on to have an easier time detecting speech patterns. And, of course, we invite you to join us in class!
5. Give them space and a push. It's important for some children to have time to respond. If you respond for them, or give in to their every request immediately, you're taking away both the opportunity for them to speak and the need for them to speak.
As parents, we understand our children best. Even the most unintelligible babble can be crystal clear to mother.
But to strengthen your child's ability to produce words, they need a reason to speak!
If your child is reaching for their water bottle, rather than just handing it over, say "You want your water? Can you say water?" Wait until your child makes an attempt at saying water before handing it over. Repeat the word using context often, and give them time to respond.
They'll come around.
We invite you to listen in from minute 58:32 of our interview with Dr. Carrie Contey, psychologist and child development expert. Our director of Mi Casa Es Tu Casa®, Laura Bruce (also a clinical psychologist), has an even more in depth conversation with her about this topic.
In our parenting Q&A, we'll also be answering the question of whether bilingualism causes speech delays in children, so stay tuned. We've all heard about its long term benefits, but does it also mean your child might end up behind? More on that in a future post.
Keep the questions coming! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your parenting questions.
For more about the language development and milestones discussed here, visit Mayo Clinic , CDC.gov, and Baby Center, and take a look at the paper, “Music and Early Language Acquisition” published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
What you need to learn about Speech delay in Toddlers is a good place to start if you have concerns about this subject.
Also, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association is a great resource for researching the difference between "late talkers" and real, diagnosable speech delay.
You can even read other posts from Mi Casa Es Tu Casa® on the subject: “Why Are Kids So Good at Learning Languages”, and this post rich in research-based information about why music classes are so beneficial to babies.