As a parent, it’s natural to want what’s best for your kids — including making sure that their social, physical, emotional, and verbal development is right on track (or at least relatively close). At the same time, one of the learning curves of new parenthood is understanding that every child develops at their own pace, and that the average age associated with certain milestones is exactly that: a statistical average. Though these averages can be a helpful tool in figuring out if your child is an outlier (on either end of the spectrum), raising kids isn’t a mathematical formula. (If only!) When it comes to child development, one of parents’ primary areas of focus is their kids’ speech and language abilities. And that sometimes leads a parent down the path of looking into speech therapy for toddlers.
Whether marveling at their first words and sentences or starting to become concerned about why their little one isn’t more verbal, parents tend to be all-ears. So let’s say your kiddo isn’t as talkative as their peers, or that what they do say is consistently difficult to make out. At that point, you may wonder whether you should look into speech therapy for children. As kids get older and start school, their teachers typically pick up on any speech difficulties or delays and, ideally, ensure they get the support they need. But what about before they’re in school? How do you know if or when your child’s adorable speech quirks are something that should be addressed by a professional?
Here’s what to know about speech therapy for toddlers, including speech delay exercises and the kinds of speech therapy you can do at home.
What is the difference between speech and language?
It might surprise you to learn that these terms aren’t interchangeable. According to Nemours KidsHealth, “speech is the verbal expression of language and includes articulation (the way we form sounds and words),” while “language is giving and getting information” through verbal, nonverbal, and written communication.
There are also differences between speech and language delays — as well as some overlap, Nemours KidsHealth points out. For example, a child with a speech delay may have an extensive vocabulary of words and phrases, but they’re difficult to understand when they say them out loud. On the other hand, a child with a language delay may have no problem with other people being able to make out what they’re saying, but they may not know many words, and/or have difficulty putting them together into phrases and sentences.
How do I know if my toddler needs a speech therapist?
If you’re concerned about your toddler’s speech development, it can be hard to determine whether they have some type of speech delay or are simply doing things at their own pace. To help you figure out whether your toddler needs to work with a speech therapist, here are some signs to keep an eye out for, courtesy of Hackensack Meridian Health, broken down by age group:
- Only makes a few sounds
- Hasn’t said their first word(s) yet
- Doesn’t use gestures like waving or pointing
- Grunts and points to let you know when they want something
- Doesn’t often use two-word combinations
- Leaves endings off words, like saying “si-dow” instead of “sit down”
- Able to follow instructions, but has trouble verbalizing appropriate responses
- Doesn’t put two- and three-word combinations together
- Has a vocabulary of fewer than 50 words
- Speech is mostly unintelligible
- Repeats the first sounds of words, like “b-b-b-ball” for “ball”
- Difficulty following classroom directions, like “Draw a square on your paper around an animal”
- Frequently repeats sounds or words
When should a toddler start speech therapy?
Like other questions that come up regarding your child’s health or well-being, your pediatrician is a good person to ask. While they may not be speech therapists themselves, pediatricians have spoken with a lot of kids of different ages and likely have a good idea if yours may need some extra support. In fact, they may even be able to recommend a speech therapist.
Before your toddler can begin any type of speech therapy, they must first meet with a speech-language pathologist (SLP). The SLP will speak with your child during the session and give them a few standardized tests to help determine their needs. Based on the results, the SLP may (or may not) recommend that your toddler starts speech therapy.
What do they do in speech therapy with toddlers?
Speech therapy for kids helps children deal with communication challenges and treats oral motor skills (like chewing and swallowing), as well as articulation, listening and processing abilities, and social skills, according to Hackensack Meridian Health. Speech therapy sessions for children typically last around a half-hour, and it can take up to 15 to 20 hours of therapy to correct a speech difference.
In addition to their sessions with a therapist, there are ways to do speech therapy at home. To start with, parents can help minimize distractions (especially the TV) while doing speech exercises at home, allowing the toddler to focus. If they’re not up for going over what they worked on in their last session, reading to and with your child is a great way to establish and reinforce speech and language skills.
When speaking to a child, give them choices during conversations. For example, you can ask them, "Do you want graham crackers or apples?" The goal is to get them to verbalize what they want instead of just pointing.
Cutting down on screen time can also help. According to a 2018 study, mobile devices were linked to language delays in small children.
Finally, you can also do toddler speech delay exercises at home. According to Reid Health, these can be as simple as encouraging your toddler to repeat sounds they’ve been struggling with, eventually incorporating the sound into syllables, and later, full words.
How can I encourage a toddler to talk?
If you want to work on your child’s speech at home, here are a few ways to keep your child engaged and encourage them to speak. When you’re with your little one, speak to them directly and narrate what you’re doing. It’s also important to spend time reading to your toddler. Not only are picture books entertaining, but a great way to inspire speech. Playing simple songs, pointing to objects, and saying what they are is also a good way to get your little one to talk.
Set a good example of speech by using less baby talk. This doesn’t mean you can’t use cute phrases; just make sure you’re using the actual words too. It’s also important to ask your child questions and make sure they understand what you’re asking. You can even turn it into a game and have them ask you questions.
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