If your toddler isn’t speaking as much as other kids their age, you may be wondering if there’s cause for concern. While every child develops at their own pace, some little ones do lag behind in early language skills. As a parent, you want to help your late-talking tot catch up. This guide will cover some key takeaways on supporting your child’s speech and language development.
- Late talking is common in toddlers and doesn’t necessarily indicate a long-term problem. However, early intervention can help.
- There are normal speech milestones you can watch for at each age to gauge if your child is on track or falling behind.
- Late talking may be caused by a speech delay, autism spectrum disorder, hearing problems, or other issues. Seek an evaluation to identify the cause.
- Work on building your child’s communication skills with simple activities tailored to their stage. Reading, singing, gestures, and play can all help.
- If your child qualifies for speech therapy, take advantage of it. A speech-language pathologist can provide specialized support.
- As a parent, be patient and avoid pressuring your late talker. Praise all their communication efforts to build confidence.
- Monitor your child’s progress and advocate for support services if needed. With help, many late talkers do catch up to peers.
What Is Late Talking?
As a toddler, your child is starting to gain some independence and curiosity about the world. An important part of this stage is developing language and communication skills. Between ages 1-3, children typically start putting words together, building vocabulary, and comprehending more complex speech.
However, some toddlers lag behind in hitting these early speech and language milestones. About 10-20% of 2-year-olds only speak a few words compared to other kids their age who are starting to form short phrases. If your toddler isn’t communicating at the same level as peers, you may worry they have a speech delay or disorder.
The technical term for kids who are slower to start talking is “late talkers.” Late talking means a child’s speech and language development lags behind expectations for their age group without an obvious reason like a hearing impairment or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Some defining features of late talkers:
- Small vocabulary of only 10-50 words by age 2
- Not putting 2 words together by age 2
- Difficulty learning new words
- Trouble understanding verbal instructions
- Relying heavily on gestures to communicate
- Minimal babbling or vocalizing
Late talking tends to emerge between 18-24 months as differences become more apparent. If by age 2 your toddler isn’t saying many words or communicating in short phrases, consult your pediatrician. While every child masters speech at a different pace, early intervention with late talkers can help prevent long-term problems.
Typical Speech Milestones
To determine if your child’s speech development is on track, it helps to know the normal milestones. Here are some key guidelines from health experts:
By 12 months:
- Babbles long strings of sounds like “bababa”
- Responds to simple verbal requests like “Come here”
- Uses exclamations like “Oh!” and “Uh oh!”
- Tries to imitate simple words
By 15 months:
- Says 1-2 words like “Mama” or “Dada”
- Points or gestures to communicate
- Tries to copy animal sounds
- Looks at familiar objects when named
By 18 months:
- Says 5-10 words consistently
- Combines sounds and gestures to communicate
- Points to body parts when asked
- Uses simple gestures like shaking head “no”
By 24 months:
- Says 50 or more words
- Combines 2 words like “More milk”
- Names objects in picture books
- Follows 2-step instructions like “Get the ball and bring it here”
- Asks “What’s that?” often
By 30 months:
- Puts 3-4 words together in short phrases
- Asks simple questions
- Speech is understood by unfamiliar listeners
- Uses pronouns correctly like “me” “you” “mine”
- Names colors and counts to 3 or higher
By 3 years:
- Speech is mostly intelligible and grammatical
- Asks questions like “What are you doing?”
- Tells short stories using full sentences
- Speaks in 3-6 word phrases
- Follows multi-step instructions
By 4-5 years:
- Speaks in full, complex sentences
- Tells stories with detail
- Asks “Why?” often
- Speech is largely understandable
- Carries on conversations with other kids and adults
Every child will master these milestones at their own pace. But if your toddler is lagging several months behind expected skills for their age range, an early speech evaluation is recommended. Early intervention can help late talkers catch up.
What Causes Late Talking?
There are a few possible explanations for why some toddlers have delayed speech development:
Also called expressive language disorder, some late talkers have difficulties with verbal expression but typical language comprehension. Speech delays involve problems articulating words and putting sentences together. Late talking is often the first sign.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
About 40% of late talkers are eventually diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which affects communication and social skills. ASD may involve delayed language, muted vocal tones, echolalia, or other speech irregularities.
Hearing deficits can impact a child’s ability to process verbal language and develop speech sounds. Even mild hearing impairment can cause language delays. Babbling and gestures may develop typically, then communication lags.
Intellectual disability, Down syndrome, and global developmental delays can cause language delays alongside impacts in other areas like motor skills.
Neglect, abuse, chronic stress, unstable caregiving, or limited interaction can affect early communication skills. Poverty and lack of stimulation play a role too.
Problems with the mouth, jaw, tongue or palate like cleft palate can make speech difficult. Some syndromes also affect speech muscles and oral structure.
Late talking often emerges on its own without any obvious explanations. Some kids are simply late bloomers when it comes to language milestones.
If your toddler is lagging behind verbal milestones, have their pediatrician refer you to a speech-language pathologist. A specialist can run tests, observe their communication skills, and determine if there are any underlying issues causing the delay. Early identification helps get the right treatment plan in place sooner.
Early Intervention Tips
While waiting for an evaluation, there are many things you can do at home to encourage speech development in a late talker:
Read together – Frequently reading engaging picture books exposes kids to language concepts, new vocabulary and proper speech sound pronunciation. Oral storytelling is great too.
Sing songs – Sing nursery rhymes, kids tunes, and play music. This builds listening skills, rhythm and the ability to associate symbolic sounds with meaning.
Limit screen time – Too much TV and apps can hinder interaction. Focus quality time on real-life communication opportunities.
Use gestures – Use your hands, facial expressions and pantomime motions yourself, and encourage your child to gesture to supplement speech. Sign language can help with word acquisition.
Play games – Simple, interactive play like peekaboo, pattycake and fingerplays lets kids connect words with actions. Ball play and bubbles build verbal concepts.
Talk about their day – Narrate your child’s experiences as you go through daily routines, describing objects, activities and feelings. Model expanded sentences.
Prompt speech – Ask simple questions, provide fill-in-the-blanks, and pause expectantly to encourage your child to respond verbally. Resist answering for them.
Practice sounds – Make silly faces and noises that encourage your child to imitate. Practice naming sounds like vehicles, animal noises, etc.
Stay patient – Late talkers need time, practice and confidence-building. Avoid pressuring; praise all attempts to communicate.
Check comprehension – Ensure your child understands language by giving simple instructions and gauging their response. See if they can identify named objects.
Use visuals – Display photos, picture schedules and charts to illustrate words and concepts. Connecting images with language promotes learning.
Assess hearing – Have your pediatrician screen hearing if you suspect any deficits. Even mild issues can impact speech.
Simple daily communication opportunities tailored to your child’s abilities lay the foundation for language growth. But if your toddler remains significantly delayed, consult a speech-language pathologist for expert guidance.
Seeking A Speech Evaluation
If your toddler shows signs of being a late talker, it’s important to seek an assessment sooner rather than later. Here’s how the evaluation process typically works:
Get a Referral
Talk to your pediatrician as soon as you have concerns about delayed speech, and ask for a referral to a speech-language pathologist. Some insurances require referrals.
A certified SLP will conduct an evaluation, observing your child’s communication skills and developmental profile. They’ll note speech sound errors, language comprehension, attempts to communicate, and more.
Standardized tests compare your child’s speech and language skills against norms for their age group. The SLP may assess cognitive, motor, behavioral and social skills too.
Your input provides key information about your child’s speech and language milestones and background. The SLP will ask about birth, medical issues, hearing, behavior and development.
Based on the evaluation results, the SLP can diagnose any speech or language disorders causing delays. They’ll recommend personalized treatment options like speech therapy, classroom accommodations, assistive communication devices and more.
Ideally, late talkers should receive a speech evaluation by age 2, or as soon as concerns arise. Early intervention services can begin as young as birth to 3 years old through state programs. School district evaluations begin around ages 3-5. Waiting lists can be long, so get your child on the list even if they’re younger.
An accurate diagnosis and thoughtful treatment plan tailored to your child’s needs gives them the best chance to catch up. The earlier communication disorders are identified, the better the outcome.
Benefits of Speech Therapy
If evaluation results indicate your child needs extra support, speech therapy is the gold standard treatment for most speech and language delays. Here’s an overview of how this specialized intervention can help:
Speech therapists assess your child’s specific deficits and create targeted goals to address problem areas. Programs are tailored to each child’s learning style and paced appropriately.
Communication Skill Building
Exercises develop core communication abilities like listening comprehension, vocabulary expansion, articulation, expressing wants and needs, conversation skills and more.
Speech therapists coach parents on continuing language development activities at home. Consistency between therapy and home promotes faster progress.
Therapists continually evaluate progress, adjust treatment plans accordingly, and offer realistic guidance on prognosis.
Support Transition to School
Speech therapy helps build skills necessary for following classroom instructions, interacting with peers, communicating needs to teachers and succeeding academically.
When children can communicate better, tantrums, aggression and other frustrating behaviors often decrease. Social skills improve too.
A speech delay is one of the most treatable childhood issues when caught early. Speech therapy through early intervention programs typically lasts 6 months up to 2 years. Most late talkers do eventually catch up with peers, especially with this expert intervention.
Tips for Supporting Your Late Talker
Whether or not your child qualifies for speech therapy, there are many things you can do at home to support their communication development:
Read books together – Frequently look at picture books, magazines and real-life photos. Name objects and describe actions you see. Ask interactive questions.
Sing songs and play music – Nursery rhymes, kids’ songs and musical instruments build listening skills and vocabulary. Clap and dance to rhythms together.
Limit screen time – Minimize passive TV and tablet use, and maximize back-and-forth communication opportunities with real people.
Chat about their interests – Notice what captures your child’s attention and talk about those topics. Describe what you’re doing during play.
Use puppets and props – Act out stories and role-play together with fun toys. This sparks language and creativity.
Ask open-ended questions – Avoid yes/no questions. Ask “What are you doing?” “What should we play next?”
Repeat, don’t correct – When they say something imperfectly, naturally recast it using the correct pronunciation.
Pause and wait – After asking a question, give your child some extra time to process and respond. Resist answering for them.
Praise all attempts – Cheer efforts to communicate with words, sounds and gestures. Build their confidence.
Use visuals – Display photos, charts and picture schedule boards to illustrate activities and boost comprehension.
Follow speech therapy tips – Practice suggested exercises and activities at home between therapy sessions.
Focus on engagement – Tune in emotionally, make eye contact often, respond warmly, and really listen without distractions.
Check hearing regularly – Have your child’s hearing assessed at least annually to catch any changes quickly.
Advocate for support – If your child qualifies for special services like speech therapy or special education, take advantage of it.
Remain patient – Every child develops on their own timeline. Avoid pressuring yours but consistently nurture communication skills.
The most important things you can provide are rich language exposure, two-way interaction, emotional availability and confidence-boosting praise. It’s also important to monitor your child’s progress and request formal reevaluations if concerns continue over time.
When to Seek Help for Ongoing Issues
While many late talkers do eventually catch up to peers after targeted early intervention, some continue to struggle with:
- Very limited vocabulary/word use
- Minimal babbling or verbal initiations
- Trouble putting words together
- Inability to follow verbal requests
- Poor comprehension skills
- Extreme frustration communicating
- Apraxia (difficulty planning speech movements)
If your child makes very slow progress in speech therapy or continues to show significant delays, request a reevaluation and discuss these ongoing issues with your pediatrician and speech-language pathologist.
Consider having your child re-tested for autism spectrum disorder, which can be hard to diagnose correctly at a very young age. Be proactive seeking second opinions if progress stalls.
Some other helpful avenues if speech continues to be severely delayed after age 3:
- Request an IEP – Ask your school district to assess your child for special education services like continued speech therapy.
- See a developmental pediatrician – They can review your child’s case to determine if any underlying medical issues are hindering speech development. Tests like genetics panels and MRIs are sometimes warranted.
- Get assistive technology – Devices like speech-generating boards can supplement verbal skills.
- Assess hearing again – Have your child’s hearing evaluated, including auditory processing abilities. Vision should be checked too.
- Consider AAC – Many nonverbal children communicate successfully using augmentative and alternative communication like sign language and picture exchange communication systems.
- Join a support group – Connect with other parents facing communication disorders. Tips and solidarity can help.
If you’ve tried the standard interventions but your child still barely communicates verbally by ages 4-5, check into a developmental pediatrician and school-based assistance. Don’t give up hope with the proper support. Some kids just need more time and assistance.
Conclusion: Keys to Helping Late Talkers Thrive
Late talking in toddlers is common but should be addressed quickly to prevent long-term issues. While every child develops speech on their own timeline, early intervention makes a significant difference helping late bloomers catch up to peers.
With informal support strategies at home, formal speech therapy if needed, advocacy for special services, and consistent nurturing of communication skills, most late talkers do eventually find their voices. As a parent, stay tuned in, speak to experts, and trust the process. Addressing concerns early and following through on treatment lays the groundwork for your child’s future communication success.