Most parents wait on tenterhooks for their child’s first meaningful words, but what if your child doesn’t meet the expected milestones? Here are some of the most common speech difficulties explained, as well as ways you can help at home.
The rate of speech development varies from child to child, but for most children we expect that they will be able to make certain sounds by a certain age, and that they will start to put these sounds together to make recognisable words. As long as your children are healthy and you provide them with the appropriate stimulation, they should just begin to produce speech naturally. However, there are many things we can do as parents to enhance our child’s speech and language skills, and help them overcome speech difficulties.
Some children have real difficulty articulating sounds and words, and some have very little speech at all. There are a number of causes of speech difficulty or delay, and these are not always obvious. A speech delay in children can happen for many reasons.
Glue Ear (Otitis Media) is very common for many children. This is a middle ear infection, which at its worst can be very painful and cause rupturing of the ear drum, but in some cases can remain unnoticed for months. There is usually a build-up of fluid in the middle ear and over time this fluid can thicken and become glue-like, obstructing the transference of sounds through the middle ear. For a child, this can have a major impact on speech development because children learn to talk by listening to, and discriminating, sounds and words.
If your child is not talking or their speech is obviously delayed, getting a hearing assessment should be a priority.
What if your child’s hearing is fine, but their speech is still delayed? Sometimes, children will use a handful of sounds for all words, they may have very little speech at all, or their speech is disorganised and unclear. In this case your child may have a phonological speech difficulty or dyspraxia.
General articulation difficulties
Many children do not have a disorder of any sort, but do have difficulty with one or two sounds for no obvious reason. Common articulatory difficulties are with the “r” sound, and lisps. When a child has a difficulty with just one or two sounds, it is usually not too difficult to improve their speech with the help of a speech therapist.
A phonological delay is usually noticeable when the child is late developing speech sounds or has speech difficulties. Phonological development describes the process where the child learns new sounds, stores them, and can access them to form words correctly. This is a very complex system and is linked to the child being able to organise and discriminate new sounds. When there is a phonological delay, there is sometimes an associated difficulty with language and literacy.
Developmental verbal dyspraxia, or apraxia of speech, can cause a child to have severe speech difficulties. The difficulties arise when the child is unable to coordinate the muscles of speech accurately and smoothly. To explain it simply, the signals from the brain to the muscles of speech are not working efficiently, so speech is uncoordinated and the sounds in words are mispronounced or missed altogether. Often a child with dyspraxia of speech has other difficulties and these might include delayed fine and gross motor skills, poor coordination and messy eating.
Stuttering can develop through childhood, but mostly begins between the ages of 2- to 5-years. A period of stuttering is common for many young children and usually disappears after a few weeks or months. It is believed that some children stutter because their language skills develop more quickly than their speech skills.
If your child starts to stutter, do not panic, it may only be a passing phase. However, it is important that you monitor your child’s speech, without making an issue of it. Try the following strategies at home for several weeks, and if the stutter persists, consult your local speech and language therapist.
- Don’t feel you have to tell your child to stop, breathe, slow down, or try and repeat what they are saying, just give your child plenty of time to communicate, and
don’t rush them. Don’t be tempted to complete your child’s sentences if they are struggling.
- Make sure you speak slowly (not unnaturally) and clearly when communicating with your child, and find quiet times when you are not in a hurry to have conversations with your child.
- Don’t ask too many questions or expect too much conversation from your child when they are tired.
- If your household is “busy” or there is a lot of competition for speaking time, try and look at your home environment – look for ways to reduce things that cause your child stress and tell others to give your child lots of time to talk. If there are situations in the child’s life that are causing them to worry, try and resolve these situations.
What can you do?
For all these speech difficulties, it is important to get help from a speech and language therapist as soon as possible. It is important to do this sooner rather than later, because persistent speech difficulties become harder to treat as the child gets older, and speech problems can impact on literacy development at school.
What you can do to help your childs speech development?
- Get rid of the dummy! A dummy/pacifier stops your child talking and can affect how their speech muscles grow. Dummies delay speech development.
- Turn off the TV! Television is not educational, it is passive entertainment. If you want your child to talk and learn language, turn the TV off and play with them.
- Be a good speech and language model for your child. When your child is learning to talk, repeat back their attempts at words slowly and clearly
so they hear a good model. Look at, and talk about things together, but refrain from constantly asking your child to name things all the time. Praise your child’s attempts at communication.
- If you are getting help, but your child is still struggling to get their message out, try encouraging them to use some sign language or gesture along with speech to help you understand. You can also make a book of pictures or photos of commonly used words, so that your child can make choices or tell you what they want using visuals.
- If you have any concerns about your child’s communication, contact a speech and language therapist either through your local Ministry of Education office, or privately.
Although there is a general timeframe when we expect most children to be able to produce certain sounds correctly, many children acquire some sounds a little later. The milestones listed below are just a guide, and should not be taken too literally.
0- to 12-months
- By 12-months, your child may be producing /b/p/m/d/ sounds and some vowels.
- Babble should start at around 6-8 months and become more complex. Often the first recognisable word occurs around 12-months.
12- to 18-months
- At 18-months, you may be hearing /n/w/h/ sounds and more vowel sounds.
- Some children may have around 10 recognisable words by 18-months, with a mixture of babble and jargon.
18- to 24-months
- By 24-months, your child should have developed the sounds above and probably the /t/ sound as well.
- At this point, your child is likely to have 10-20 recognisable words, and possibly a two syllable word.
24- to 30-months
- By 30-months, your child should have added /ng/c/g/ to their speech inventory.
- Some children have up to 200 words by 30 months, with the occasional two-word combination. They are understandable to family members 75% of the time.
30- to 36-months
- By 3-years-old, your child should have added /y/ to the above sounds and is possibly starting to use /s/f/.
- Your child may now use 450 words and some three word sentences. They will also be more understandable.
3- to 4-years
- In the 4th year, your child’s speech sounds really develop and they should start to use /f/s/j/sh/ch/z/v/, and cluster sounds (sp/st/gl/tr etc). Many children will also be using /l/ and /r/, although these sounds develop later for other children.
- Your child could have around 1000 recognisable words by age 4 and be using 4-5 word sentences.
4- to 5-years
- By 5-years, your child should have mastered most speech sounds and cluster sounds successfully.
- Your child will now have 1500 recognisable words and longer more complex utterances.
5- to 6-years
- By 6-years, your child should have mastered all speech sounds including clusters, /th/l/ and /r/.
- Your child’s speech should be fluent, with a vocabulary of 2000 words and 5-6 word sentences.
Johan Langfield (Speech and Language Therapist). To learn more, see icommunicate’s comprehensive website with resources and information about speech and language difficulties, hearing impairment and autism.
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