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Published on November 05, 2019

Why isn’t my child talking yet?

Child Not Talking

When other children your child’s age are talking in full sentences, but yours is still trying to grasp the art of conversation, should you worry?

Not necessarily, according to Sharon F. Daley, MD, of Seaside Pediatrics in West Yarmouth.

“Development isn’t really a smooth upward curve,” she said, and children learn at their own individual paces.

For example, a child might be focused on mastering the skills needed to walk, she said, and put less effort into learning to speak.

Talking is only one aspect of learning to communicate, Dr. Daley said. Children learn to understand and respond to language and nonverbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions, before they begin speaking.

She shared these general guidelines for speech development by age:

  • By 6 months, babbling.
  • By 9 months, starting to use gestures.
  • By 12 months, use of one word beyond names for parents, such as Mama and Dada.
  • Between 1 and 2 years, using sounds that mimic the flow and rhythm of language.
  • By 2 years, combining two or more words to make phrases.

Possible causes for speech delays

Physical and mental issues, including hearing problems, intellectual and developmental difficulties from genetic causes, fetal alcohol syndrome or lead poisoning, and autism can cause children to be late talkers, but so can more innocuous factors, such as birth order or growing up in a bilingual household, Dr. Daley said.

“Probably 9 to 10 percent of kids will be late talkers,” she said. “But only 1 in 50 will be diagnosed with autism.”

Some children just take longer.

“Children in a family develop differently,” she said. “One child may be an early talker, another on the late side, but both will be fine in the end.”

For children raised in a household with two languages, there is no need to focus on one over the other to prevent the child from being confused, according to the Linguistic Society of America. Children will learn both simultaneously.

“Some of them start a little later,” Dr. Daley said.

Immigrant families were once told to focus on English at home so as not to hinder the child’s speech development, but research has not supported this practice, according to the society. In fact, learning two languages at once may have some advantages, such as fostering flexible thinking.

Poor hearing tops the list of possible causes to check if a child isn’t speaking, Dr. Daley said.

“One of the first things we do, we look at the newborn hearing screen,” she said.

This is a test administered to more than 96 percent of babies within their first month, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Parts of the ear, plus the auditory nerve and brain stem, are tested for their response to sound.

Seaside Pediatrics also screens all children at 18 months and 2 years for symptoms of autism, Dr. Daley said. If a language problem was suspected, family history might be examined for inherited disorders. If a problem is diagnosed, or a child’s social or medical history shows a risk of developmental delay, the family may be referred to Early Intervention. This federally-funded, state-run program for children under the age of 3 helps support parents and caregivers and promotes children’s education and development. Parents can also self-refer their children to the program.

Dos and Don’ts

Families can boost their child’s language development by spending time with them, Dr. Daley said. Play with them, talk to them, sing with them, read to them, she said.

“Reading is huge,” she said.

Seaside Pediatrics participates in Reach Out and Read, a national non-profit program, and gives patients an age-appropriate book at every well-child visit, Dr. Daley said.

Exposure to electronic devices – television, cell phones and tablets – should be limited, she added.

“Turn off the TV in the background – even educational TV,” Dr. Daley said. “For young children, it’s probably more of a minus.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages use of electronics before age 2, she said.

“The exception is FaceTime (video calling) with grandparents or other significant relatives who don’t live nearby,” she continued.