As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I work with a lot of little ones who just need a “boost” with the language they’re using. They’ve found ways to communicate—pointing, bringing a toy to Mom or Dad to fix, or pulling Mom or Dad to the thing they want—but as the parents tell me, “She’s just not saying many words.” Many times, when I meet these children, I see some things that tell me why this is happening: Everyone is anticipating her needs so she doesn’t have to talk, she has a big brother or sister who talks for her, or her parents are talking for her instead of letting her say the words she probably already knows.
Keep in mind that early intervention is important: If you think there may be a problem, go ahead and get an evaluation. It’s better to check now and get your child the help she needs while she’s still young, rather than wait until she’s in school, when there might be an even bigger problem. (Untreated language difficulties in very young children can lead to difficulties with reading when they’re older.)
If you’re not sure about where your child should be with her language, I can tell you what we look for: By the age of 1 year, a child should be consistently using at least 1 real word. (That is, the word adults use, or very close to it. And when the child says that word, she definitely means the correct thing every time.) By the age of 18 months, she should be using at least 15 words. By 2 years old, she should be using at least 50 words. And by the time she’s 3 years old, she should be using at least 300 words. Now I say “at least,” and that’s important. These amounts are the absolute lowest number of words your child should be using to be considered in the normal range. If the number of words your child is using is under that benchmark, even by only 1 or 2 words, it means her language is not really in the normal range. She may need a little help!
If you’re worried that your child is not using enough words, here are some things you can start trying at home right now:
- Don’t anticipate her needs: When she wants something, don’t immediately give it to her unless she asks for it with a real word. It can be the actual word for the object (“Ball,” “banana”) or if it’s a harder word to say (like “sticker”), encourage her to say “please” or “more” before you give it to her. (And by the way, don’t worry yet about how she pronounces her words. If you want her to say “please” and she says “peez,” that’s great! If you’re trying for “more” and she says “mo,” fantastic!)
- Encourage Brother or Sister to help her use her words: Remind siblings that they need to let her talk for herself, but get them in on the project—ask them to help you get the little one talking!
- Listen more, talk less: If you’re looking at a book, don’t immediately point to all the pictures and say what they are. If you’re looking at toys, don’t automatically pick each one up and say what it is. Instead, give your child a chance to tell you what the pictures/objects are. When you ask her a question, give her a chance to respond. Of course, if you think she doesn’t know a word, by all means go ahead and tell her what it is!
- Model the language you want her to use: During daily routines, like meals, bath time, bedtime—anytime you are face-to-face with your child during the day—take those opportunities it to narrate what’s going on to demonstrate good language for her. And try to make it fun whenever possible! For example, pretend you can’t find a shoe that’s right in front of you. (“Where’s your shoe? I don’t see a shoe! Help me find your shoe!”) Both the repetition and silliness are just what she needs right now to help her start to say more words. (This kind of interaction can be especially helpful if you do the same routine every day for a week. And you can also “forget” part of the routine, once your child is used to it, and wait for her to initiate it!)
All in all, remember that you know your child best. If you’re worried about her language, there could be a very good reason. And it may be best to schedule an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist, by speaking with your child’s pediatrician. It can’t hurt, and it could really help.
Is Your Child’s Language Developing at a Typical Rate?
Teresa Davis, M.S. CCC-SLP
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