When your child has delays in language, you may experience many emotions and thoughts as a mother. When my daughter was born with Down syndrome, I assumed she would have delayed language, as children with Down syndrome commonly begin speaking at a later age. However, that later age came and went with no words.
Today at age 10, my daughter says about 20 words clearly. She communicates mostly with sign language and her speech generating communication device. She is approximating more words than ever in the past year as she tries to make the vowel sounds in words while leaving off the consonant sounds.
I’ve had 10 years raising a child who was classified as either “nonverbal” or “minimally verbal.” As a speech-language pathologist working with toddlers, I am in constant contact with mothers who are concerned about their child’s talking. With these experiences in mind, here are common thoughts a mother has as she waits for her child to speak:
1. “My child isn’t talking, but it’s still early.”
This is the time when the mother starts to notice some delays in her child’s language and speech. These are the early concerns. Some mothers at this point might seek help and have their child’s development evaluated. Others might brush off these concerns and give the child more time.
When Jaycee didn’t speak early on, I tried to find other reasons to be hopeful. When she learned the sign for “more,” I took comfort in the fact that she could learn language if she wasn’t saying it.
2. “My child still isn’t talking. She should be talking by now. Why isn’t she talking?”
After some time, this stage of thought starts and lasts months or years. This is when a mother begins to question things she sees or hears (or doesn’t see and hear). By this time, the mother has most likely evaluated her child’s language and has sought some type of intervention. The mother is starting to get worried as she sees her child’s peers saying much more than her child. The delays are becoming obvious to the mother and to others. This causes the mother stress and anxiety, as her child’s future may not seem to be taking a “perfect” path.
When Jaycee was 2 1/2 years old and only saying a couple of words, I had these thoughts often. I was stressed and worried about her. I threw myself into helping her at home working with her on sign language, oral-motor exercises, and verbal speech drills. I was convinced I could do something to change the situation.
3. “A new sound/word! I heard it! It’s coming!”
There will be a point when the child might say something new. Perhaps it’s a new sound or noise. Perhaps it is a new word. It will be exciting because you have been waiting for this moment. It will give you hope. It is the positive moment in your child’s life that you have been waiting for. It will be met with celebration.
From here, mothers tend to take two routes. For some mothers, their child will go on to speak. Their worries will slowly die down as their child begins saying more and the delays get smaller. For others like myself, the new word or sound stays just one word or sound. This victory feels short-lived. Those of us who continue waiting for a significant amount of words will continue on this thought process.
I remember the time Jaycee said, “Mama.” I had waited for that word. It was exciting! Not only was it a new word, but it was also the first time she had made a /m/ sound. I had reason to believe Jaycee would now start saying more words and sounds. More words did come but with months between them. Nothing happened quickly.
4. “She’s not really talking yet. Something is seriously wrong.”
By this stage, a minority of mothers still find themselves with a child who has minimal or no words in their spoken vocabulary, well past the age when these language milestones should occur. At this point, the mother realizes something is different. There has to be an underlying reason why the child isn’t speaking. Now the mother might seek out a second opinion, ask for more speech therapy, ask for a new treatment approach or seriously consider alternative methods of communication. Tough decisions may have to be made, and the mother may find herself stressed at times over this thought.
When Jaycee was 5 years old and barely saying anything, I sought out a second opinion from someone with more expertise in this area. I was done waiting for words to come. It turns out my concerns were valid, as Jaycee was diagnosed by the second opinion with severe childhood apraxia of speech, which was no surprise to me. It was then that we started the process to obtain Jaycee’s communication device.
5. “My child may never be verbal.”
Now years into a journey, a mother has come to the realization that her child may never talk at all or very little. This is a painful time for the mother. While this thought has always been in her head, the mother is now fully accepting this idea and coming to terms with what this may mean. This can affect the child’s future educational and vocational options. This may also affect the child’s ability to live independently. The mother does keep hope of their child saying new words, but some realistic expectations are now the focus.
For me, I had to sit with this thought for some time to fully comprehend it. Even though this thought had caused me great fear years prior, it was now evident that it had validity. What did it mean for me and Jaycee if she never really talked? The scenarios played out in my head for months. I learned that I wasn’t giving up on Jaycee talking if I accepted the fact that she never become very verbal.
6. “My child isn’t talking much, but any communication is good.”
In this stage, the mother’s thoughts revolve around thankfulness. Her child may not talk, but the mother is thankful for the things her child can do. The child may be using sign language, pictures, communication devices, or simple gestures to communicate. After years of hoping and dealing with emotions related to talking, the mother has reached a new level in her thinking. She is not focused on what the child is not doing but on what the child can communicate. When friends or family ask about why the child isn’t speaking, the mother can talk about it plainly and without emotion.
For me, I went through this stage with Jaycee when she was about 8 years old. I didn’t feel the need to compare her to other children anymore. I didn’t feel guilty for not working on her language and speech at home. I started fully encouraging a total communication approach (sign language, spoken words, gestures, communication device). I was grateful that Jaycee had ways to communicate with me. Words didn’t seem as important as communication in general.
7. “My child will probably not be able to have a conversation with me, but that’s fine.”
After years of hard work, questions, fears, and opinions, a mother has now come to the last stage. As she has watched her child grow older, the mother has truly come to terms with the fact that her child may never talk enough to hold a long conversation. This now seems like a fact and not a loss. Her child is still her child with or without speech. They have found ways to communicate and bond that surpass words.
For me, this has been the last stage. Jaycee has developed a small vocabulary, but she may never speak in sentences or hold a conversation with me using words. But it’s okay — I’m not sad about it. We have our inside jokes, special sayings, and ways to communicate. Jaycee says what she can say, and that’s fine.
If you are a mom worried about your child not talking, hang in there. It’s not easy. But I can tell you that your perspective will change even if your child’s verbal skills do not. No matter where you are in this thought process, just know you are not alone.