As soon as you welcome a new child into the world, your mind becomes a whirl of various appointments and important, can't-miss milestones designed to keep your new bundle of joy on track. While new moms and dads may fret over the color and consistency of their baby's poop or whether or not they can fully get their little one on solids, ensuring your child can talk at the correct age is always a top priority. Although many kids start babbling at a young age (we're talking as early as 4 months old!), according to experts, there's a window of time — usually between 18 and 24 months — when they should start to get chatty.
Concerned that your child might be behind in terms of reaching this milestone? We spoke with Lindsey Pauline, MA, program manager of clinical therapies and speech pathology at the Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, OH, to learn what parents should do if their children are struggling to babble or full-on speak. Believe it or not, 10 percent of children will experience a speech delay, so it's important to keep in mind that kids can develop their speaking skills at various times. The best thing parents can do is try to get ahead of it.
What to Look For in Children Between 3 and 6 Months Old
Although your children aren't able to form full-fledged words just yet, they should be expressing what they want and how they feel in other ways.
"We look for babies to start making some sounds, babbling, and for that to really to increase in that 3- to 6-month period," Lindsey explained. "More importantly, you want to see that they're starting to hear and understand. They're looking in the direction of sound. They're looking when you point. When you walk in the room, they're looking at you. They start to smile, even feeding is communication. Babies often cry when they see the person that usually feeds them, they're looking towards them or trying to get their attention because at that age they really want to be fed."
Parents whose child isn't being as communicative during this stage might want to head to the pediatrician to get their baby's hearing and vision checked out. "A child may not respond if they can't hear," Lindsey explained. "We really look in that early time frame to see if they're recognizing familiar people and objects and a body language change." While the thought of your little one having hearing damage is certainly concerning, it could be the result of multiple ear infections or a blockage of some sort. "Maybe they've had some ear infections and they're not hearing you," Lindsey said. "They're not really responding because they don't hear you come in the room. You should also get their vision checked. Maybe they're not responding to you because they don't see you in the room."
What to Look For in Children Between 12 and 15 Months Old
According to Kids Health, children between 12 and 15 months old should show signs of early communication. "Kids this age should have a wide range of speech sounds in their babbling — like p, b, m, d, or n — begin to imitate sounds and words they hear, and often say one or more words (not including 'mama' and 'dada')," the website says. "Nouns usually come first, like 'baby' and 'ball.' They also should be able to understand and follow simple one-step directions."
What to Look For in Children 2 Years and Older
Although many children can say about 20 words by the time they hit 18 months, some children utter their first word even earlier. "Some 7- and 8-month-olds may come up with some first words, but it's absolutely not something that we would expect," Lindsey explained. Experts at Kids Health say that by around the age of 2, most children are combining words to make short, simple phrases like "baby crying" or "Daddy big." Additionally, a 2-year-old should be able to identify common objects in person and in pictures; point to eyes, ears, or nose when asked; and follow two-step commands like, "Please pick up the toy and give it to me."
What to Do If You Expect a Speech Delay
First and foremost, parents should make an appointment with a healthcare provider ASAP. Furthermore, they should make every effort to read to their kids as early as possible. "Getting them on your lap reading," Lindsey advised. "Especially in that 3 months to 7 month range. It's a great time to start reading because they can't really turn the pages or run away from you yet. And if you start that routine, they really start to get the sense that communication and reading and verbalization is a part of our lives together."
Lindsey also believes that using pretend play can help children improve their speech and language skills. "The first thing you're going to do is find 10 minutes a day that you're just going to sit with your baby and play with them using a toy," Lindsey explained. "Maybe it's a little toy doggy and you're going to make the doggy jump, then you're going to bounce the dog off their nose and you're going to let the doggy fall and you're going to talk while you play. Within a couple days or weeks of playing and talking with your child, you'll probably start to see improvement."
Additionally, responding to your little one can go a long way. "If your child just is walking around and goes, 'ah,' you're going to say, 'Oh doggy. You want doggy? Here you go,'" Lindsey said. "Your child will learn that when he or she makes a sound, it tells their parent or caregiver something." Making it a point to speak with your child and not at them is also crucial. "Ask your child questions. And even if they're not responding, expect a response and say, 'Oh. Oh you did. Oh, do you want this? Oh, OK, I'll get you this,'" Lindsey suggested. "Even if they're not responding so that the child starts to learn that routine, because it may not be that the child is having trouble learning words, they just don't have an opportunity to talk."