Among the countless milestones in a child’s life, there are probably few that are as anticipated as a little one’s very first word. After all, once speech starts, the guessing games stop. Once children are able to communicate using words, a brand-new world begins to open up for everyone. Speech is a powerful tool, and experts tend to agree.
"Speech is the single most powerful way for a child to interact with her environment," says Heather Boerner, pediatric speech-language pathologist. “A toddler uses speech to request desired items, to protest actions, to engage socially, and to communicate effectively with everyone around them.”
So what happens when speech doesn’t come? Or when it seems to be taking a little longer than expected?
First of all, it’s important to remember that each one of us is different, and every child operates on their own schedule, especially when it comes to language. Girls, for example, tend to develop language earlier than boys, and according to Boerner, there is a very good reason for that: they mature more quickly.
Secondly, before any coherent words are even uttered, babies and toddlers develop what is referred to as “baby babble” – which are approximations of actual words. According to Kimberly Scanlon, a speech pathologist in Ramsey, New Jersey and author of My Toddler Talks, this can begin anywhere between 9-12 months. It isn’t until around 18 months that a toddler’s vocabulary really begins to take off and they jump from four to six words, to 50. If you have trouble understanding the babble at first, you’re not alone. Most children aren’t able to speak clearly in the beginning.
If you notice that your child isn’t exactly a Babbling Betty – especially compared to other children the same age – it may be completely normal. In fact, children today are talking much later than in previous generations, and some chalk this up to the increased number of kids in daycare settings, which expose them to more illnesses that lead to hearing problems. There are, however, a few things to look out for that may be cause for concern. They include:
- Little or no sound play
- No imitation
- Lack of eye contact or response to sounds
- Not smiling by six months
- Not pointing by 14 months
- Not responding to their name by 15 months
- Not saying any single words by 16 months
- Initial verbal communication and then regression
In the meantime, there are several ways to encourage your youngster to talk. One of the best things to do is to talk as much as possible around them – the more they hear, the better. Talk about mundane things that you’re doing, like folding laundry, driving the car, or preparing supper. You’d be surprised at what they pick up!
Reading and singing are other excellent ways to encourage speech, and don’t be afraid to go overboard on the celebrations: praise them when a new word is uttered. This keeps learning fun and rewarding!