When do kids start talking? Every child is a gift, but once the euphoria of receiving that gift has worn off, the mood becomes more serious as a parent begins to notice the telltale signs of slow speech development. The mere thought that one’s child might be language-impaired, may be later bullied in school, or might have other psycho-motor, hearing, neurological, or even psychological disabilities, is enough to give any parent sleepless nights or a broken heart. And the answer to this question, as a benchmark for your child’s reality, becomes a critical concern.
When Do Babies Start Talking Clearly | Red Flags to Watch Out For
The number of cases of late-talking children is increasing, according to Marilyn Agin, MD, a developmental pediatrician based in New York City and co-author of The Late Talker: What to Do If Your Child Isn’t Talking Yet. One wonders what the possible causes could be in a technologically disposed world where we have so many talking devices. Many parents seem to think that these devices can carry on conversations with their child and keep them entertained for the whole day while they busy themselves with more important matters.
I’ve put together a list of questions many parents ask around this subject to help you identify red flags as well as put your minds at ease for when there is, in fact, no cause for alarm.
1. At What Age Do Babies Talk?
The quick answer is – it depends. There are developmental milestones you can watch out for that we will discussed later, but most children develop language at their own pace. In general, girls mature faster than boys in regard to language development. Though some kids may seem to be slow when compared with other children, they can still be ‘normal.’ “There is a broad range of normal,” assures Diane Paul-Brown, PhD, Director of Clinical Issues at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Talking, however, happens in phases and can take different forms.
2. What Are These Different Phases and ‘Forms’ of Talking for My Baby?
Strictly speaking, there’s no average age for babies to talk since ‘talking’ is already occuring from the moment your baby comes out of your womb. This ‘talking’ takes different forms at different stages.
4 to 6 months
- Crying – Different ‘cries’ will signal a different need or desire. And moms somehow have to figure out this very rudimentary ‘baby vocabulary,’ so we can supply what our child needs (birth to 3 months).
- Using their tongue, lips, teeth, and palate to make different sounds
- Babbling mainly with consonant sounds. They’re experimenting with what their organs of speech can do.
7 to 12 months
- Attempts to imitate the sounds that adults make. But at this point, they do not yet have an idea what it is they’re saying.
13 to 18 months
- Talking with a growing understanding of the connection between the sounds/words they make and how people respond differently to the specific sounds/words they utter.
- Connect words with physical realities, persons, and objects around them.
- Speak a few words with an understanding of what they mean.
19 to 24 months
- Learn more words they hear being spoken around them by people, TV, their mom’s iPad, or their language-stimulating toys.
- Speak in two to four-word sentences (i.e. “Ball gone”) to describe things, events, or their feelings.
- By this time, the child should be able to say and understand the meaning of roughly 50 words.
- The child begins to understand the idea behind pronouns and will refer to herself as ‘me’ and to her mom as ‘you.’
- He or she is now able to have a back-and-forth conversation with others.
25 to 36 months
- Shouting and experimenting with different vocal volumes and pitches.
- They will be able to construct basic but longer sentences while learning more words.
- Speak in simple sentences well enough to be understood (i.e. Mommy is angry). To answer the question, “What age should a child start talking clearly?” – it should be around this stage.
- He or she should be able to know and use names of things instead of just pointing to them.
- By this time, your child should also be able to understand and carry out multiple requests (i.e. Go to your dad and tell him it’s time for your bible stories)
48 months/4 years old
- Speak in longer, more complex sentences. When do babies start talking fluently? It would be around this time.
- At this stage, they’ll be asking abstract questions (i.e. ‘Why?’).
- The child should be able to understand the concepts of ‘same’ vs. ‘different.’
- By this time, the child should be able to name colors, shapes, and letters.
- He or she should have a basic understanding of ‘time’ (i.e. breakfast happens in the morning, lunch is eaten at midday, and dinner is in the evening).
60 months/5 years old
- Able to retell a story in his/her own words, using more than five words in a sentence
3. What’s the ‘Crucial’ Stage to Check If My Child Is ‘Normal’ or ‘Delayed’?
There isn’t one single make-or-break it stage. Like doctors say, every child is different, and more often than not, things will happen in their own time as they are meant to. “Every child develops on his own timeline,” says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., a child psychologist at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City.
But since 12 to 24 months is the leapfrog year in a baby’s language development, child development experts say that the age of two years old is a good time for parents to check if their child is on-track (Check the milestones identified in the previous question). If you notice some red flags, then that would be a good time to bring this up with your pediatrician, who could give his/her own opinion and refer you to specialists.
4. What Are These Red Flags That I Need to Watch Out For?
These red flags all indicate slow language development, but they can also be possible symptoms of other conditions. Parents should carefully observe their children and mention the presence of these specific indicators to their child’s doctor or speech pathologist.
As an infant
• doesn’t babble or make sounds with the mouth
• makes little or no eye contact with parents or caregivers
• shows little or no response to sounds
At 6 months
- rarely smiles or laughs
At 12 months
• doesn’t use gestures, such as pointing or waving bye-bye
• doesn’t bring and show things for parents or caregivers to see
• doesn’t look to where an adult’s finger is pointed
At 14 months
- doesn’t point at objects of interest
At 15 months
- doesn’t respond to his/her name
At 16 months
- unable to say a single word
At 18 months
• prefers gestures over vocalizations to communicate
• has trouble imitating sounds
At 2 years
• has trouble understanding simple verbal requests/instructions
• can only imitate speech or actions and doesn’t produce words or phrases spontaneously
• can’t use oral language to communicate beyond his or her immediate needs
• has an unusual tone of voice (such as raspy or nasal sounding)
• is more difficult to understand than other children his or her age:
– Parents and regular caregivers should understand about half of a child’s speech at 2 years and about three quarters at 3 years.
– At 4 years, a child should be well-understood, even by people who don’t know him/her
• plays only with a few of his/her toys or with just a single part of a toy (i.e. spinning a car’s wheels repetitively instead of playing with the car the way children normally would)
• shows repetitive actions or movements (i.e. flaps hands repetitively)
• pays more attention and shows more interest to objects than people
• does not respond when their name is called (even if they can hear properly)
• does not copy actions or sounds made by parents or caregivers
5. When Should We See a Specialist?
A baby’s pediatrician who knows your child well should be able to give you an initial evaluation, but you need to be proactive and report the symptoms that you see to your child’s doctor. Ask questions. If your current pediatrician is very businesslike, with little time for your little one, look for a more engaged physician with good referrals. If his initial assessment warrants it, your doctor can refer you to a specialist in language development or some related field. Or you can, at your own discretion, also have your child evaluated by such a specialist.
Early detection and intervention is crucial to the correction of any language problem and/or its root causes. Michelle MacRoy-Higgins, a speech-language therapist and co-author of Time to Talk: What You Need to Know About Your Child’s Speech and Language Development, says the first two years are foundational to a child’s language skills, meaning that it is critical to future learning and academic success.
Parents who do not address these problems immediately will be attempting to build a house without walls. A study by Bryn Mawr College researchers revealed that children who were late talkers at 24 to 31 months became poor readers and spellers, and had weaker vocabularies in the early years of elementary school. This handicap becomes even more magnified as the child progresses through higher grade levels. So, the longer parents take to do something about these warning signs and subsequent diagnoses, the more disadvantaged their child becomes.
6. What Kind of Specialists Should We See?
The following professionals can provide a proper evaluation of your child’s language difficulty and investigate deeper causes or related issues:
- Developmental-behavioral pediatrician
- Speech-language pathologist
- Speech and language therapist
- Child psychologist
It is common for parents to need the services of several specialists, or even a team of specialists, to help their child over the course of treatment.
7. What Are Some Causes of Delayed Language and Speech Development in Children?
- Delayed pace of a child’s general speech-language development
- Expressive language problems – The child hears, thinks, and understands clearly but has difficulty communicating
- Receptive language problems – The child has difficulty understanding. As a result, s/he has limited vocabulary and speaks unclearly.
- Deafness before or after the child has learned to speak
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – Delayed speech is just one symptom of this complex condition. Other symptoms include difficulty in relating to people, narrow or intense interests in things, bursts of frustration/anger, sleep problems, toe-walking, etc.
- Cerebral Palsy – This creates physical vocal coordination difficulties (i.e. spasms in the tongue area). Oftentimes, the child also has hearing problems and is unable to process physical stimuli.
- Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS)– This is a motor speech disorder where a child’s brain finds it difficult to give the proper commands to the muscles needed for speech. This is also called verbal dyspraxia or developmental apraxia.
- Dysarthria – Somewhat similar to Apraxia. The child’s speech is disrupted and hard to understand. S/he tends to use gestures excessively to compensate for his/her inability.
- Intellectual limitations or disability – The American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), defines ‘intellectual disability’ as follows: “Intellectual disability is characterized by significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior manifested in adaptive conceptual, social, and practical skills. This disability originates before the person turns 18.
8. What Can a Parent Stop Doing to Help a Child with Delayed Language Skills?
“Don’t leave your child’s learning to ‘babysitters.'” This is what professionals are now highly emphasizing, especially since ‘babysitters’ are no longer just human beings. When we discuss ‘babysitters,’ we are including anyone or anything that takes the burden of having to communicate with our kids off our own shoulders. These can be both human babysitters (paid, or relatives) and ‘gadget-babysitters’ (phones, apps, video games, television, etc.).
The responsibility of making sure that our children receive the attention they need to develop in all areas is still our own. If your child hears bad language around them, they learn the bad language. If they are ignored or not spoken to, they learn nothing.
The iPad and other tablets may seem very helpful to mothers as a tool to keep the baby quiet for a while, but a recent study presented by Dr. Catherine Birken at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting reported that there are potentially devastating drawbacks. Dr. Birken’s study showed that children between the ages of six months and two years who spent more time on handheld devices, such as the iPad, tablets, smartphones and electronic games, were more likely to suffer from speech delays.
What’s more, the findings suggest that every 30-minute increase in gadget use resulted to an increase of 49% in the risk of delayed ‘expressive speech’ development (a child’s ability to express himself/herself through words and sounds). So, if there’s one thing recommended that you STOP DOING, this is it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in fact, recommended a ‘total screen/gadget ban’ in 2016 for kids 18-24 months old. They toned this down in 2017 and advised that parents carefully choose what their children watch/play with on-screen devices. Additionally, the AAP strongly advises parents to watch shows and games alongside their kids so they can discuss the content. What this ultimately does is encourage interactivity and communication, rather than reinforce passive, silent viewing.
9. What Can Parents Do to Enhance the Language Development of Their Child?
There are countless ways a parent can promote and enhance the language development of their child. In fact, other than the developmental and speech specialists who would provide the technical-medical intervention, parents (especially the caregiver or the one looking after the baby) have the most important ‘assignments.’ Many of these suggestions won’t cost you much financially; all they require is your time and attention.
- Read to your child as early on as his/her infancy. Look for books that are interactive (those that require the child to imitate the storyteller or the illustration), books that ask your child to respond by pointing to pictures and naming what these represent, and predictable books that help kids anticipate or imagine what’s going to happen next. Reading/storytelling is a valuable investment in your child’s mind and development.
- Talk, talk, talk to your child. Use everyday situations to teach your child to talk (i.e. “Look, Sarah, I’m going to put your toys in the box”). Add to his/her vocabulary by naming what you buy at the grocery, or by naming the different things around your house. Encourage your baby to make sounds by explaining whatever housework you’re doing, having him/her repeat some words, or calling his/her attention to certain sounds you both hear.
- Ask your child questions AND listen attentively to his/her answer. Look at them directly in the eye when they speak, then acknowledge their reply.
- Sing to your baby! The pleasant harmony of music is great motivation for your child to imitate you. Music also teaches them to try different tones and volumes.
One important thing to remember as you ‘teach’ your baby to talk is that you should talk to him/her at a difficulty level that’s higher than what s/he’s capable of. That way, you encourage your child to move up to a more advanced level of speech and communication.
Akron Children’s Hospital shares its experience with speech and language delays among its patients in this video below:
To many parents, it’s a surprise they have a big part to play in facilitating and improving their child’s language skills. As you do this, observe where your child is having difficulty or where s/he seems to be delayed. Knowing there’s a problem is half the problem solved. Once you understand there is something that needs special attention, you can get the help you need from the specialists.
Do you see any telltale signs of slow language development in your baby? What action could you take to validate the problem and ensure timely therapy or treatment? I’ll be happy to read your comments below!