Everyone seems to have a story about how "little Johnny" didn’t talk until he was three, and who is now a happy, healthy child or adult. That may be true in the majority of cases, but it can be poor consolation to a parent who is agonizing over her two-year-old’s lack of vocabulary.
Slow language skills on their own may not be a problem unless accompanied by other signs. However, if a child has fallen several months behind on his language milestones, it’s a good idea to notify his pediatrician. A hearing problem or developmental delay can better be addressed when caught early.
How Many Words Should Toddlers Say?
As a general rule, one-year-olds should be able to say at least one word, 18- to 24-month-olds should be able to make two-word combinations, and a child should be saying three-word sentences before three. However, a child who is a late talker but who exhibits a high level of understanding and is able to communicate in other ways (i.e. sign language, pointing) is probably on his own, normal timetable.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association offers some general guidelines for infant and toddler speech development and suggestions for what parents can do to help their toddlers learn to talk. Sometimes giving toddlers a little incentive to speak and showing some patience is all that is required.
Reasons for Language Delay in Toddlers
There are several reasons a child might talk late, many of which do not point to a serious developmental problem.
- Preemies. Babies born early may take a little longer to meet their milestones. Don’t forget to gauge a preemie’s progress from her due date, not her birth date, when assessing her language skills. Multiples also tend to display language delays, likely due to prematurity, low birth weight, and medical interventions.
- Ear Infections. A child with recurrent ear infections could have compromised hearing and, as a result, delayed speech. In these cases it is important to see a pediatrician to have the problem properly addressed.
- Different Timetable. Some children who are late talkers, but who are developing normally overall may be working to perfect one type of skill (for example walking) at the expense of talking.
It may be helpful for parents to know that most true late talkers catch up before age 3, and some of the most famous late talkers were gifted individuals indeed (Albert Einstein was one of them!). There are also many things parents can do to encourage speech in a late talker.
As with any issue involving their child's health, parents should follow their instincts. If they feel their child is not where he or she should be speech-wise or is exhibiting warning signs of more serious problems, a call to the pediatrician or speech-language pathologist is warranted.