What a thrill to hear your child say “mama” or “dada” for the first time, and then develop more vocabulary, sometimes in adorable baby talk. But what if your child is still saying “gwamma” instead of “grandma” or “thithta” instead of “sister” at age 5? Should you be concerned?
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“Not necessarily,” says speech-language therapist Jaime Richmond Buran. “But it never hurts to have your child evaluated. The earlier we diagnose a speech-language disorder, the less impact it may have on your child’s academic and social well-being. Waiting to take action until your child starts school at age 5 or 6 makes it harder for them to catch up with their peers.”
If you suspect your child has a speech-language disorder, there are three things Richmond Buran suggests:
1. Check your child’s verbal development
“By age 3, kids should be able to pronounce ‘t,’ ‘d,’ ‘n,’ and a few other consonants,” says Richmond Buran. “A familiar listener, such as a parent or caregiver, should be able to understand 75% of what the child says. By age 5, children should be able to say most speech sounds.”
Children who don’t speak much or at all may have a language delay. One indication of language delay is if your 2-year-old cannot say approximately 50 words nor combine words to communicate something.
2. See your pediatrician first
If your child’s verbal development isn’t on target, see your pediatrician. The first step may be a hearing test. Children who have had multiple ear infections are especially prone to temporary or intermittent hearing loss, which can make it difficult to verbalize sounds correctly.
Infrequently, speech-language disorders are caused by neurological or developmental issues. More often, the cause is unknown. Your pediatrician may refer your child to a speech-language therapist.
3. Practice at home
A therapist will help your child learn to create certain sounds. Therapy sessions are usually once every week or two, so practicing with parents or caregivers between sessions is a must.
“We do a lot of play where we encourage children to use their sounds and words,” she says. “If a child has an articulation disorder, I may provide a list of words to practice at home. If a child has a language delay, I may suggest the parent imitate the child’s sounds. Sometimes a young child will think it’s a game and begin to imitate the parent’s sounds (words) too. There are countless techniques. Different kids respond to different things.”
Few children make no errors when learning to speak. But if your child has more than a passing phase of baby talk, speech-language therapists can help.