While, "Oh, my child didn't talk until 4, your child will catch up!" is often said with good intention, as a pediatric speech therapist and language development expert, this is not advice I would ever give to a parent concerned about their child's speech development. It's not just well meaning family members or friends...even doctors are guilty of the "wait and see" approach! In this post, I'm going to explain why you should not "wait and see" about your child's development and provide some reasons why a child may not be talking yet.
First, a wait and see approach is not recommended by child development specialists. Why? Because if there IS a speech and language delay or disorder, the longer the child does not receive intervention, the harder it becomes to catch up to their same aged peers. During the first 3 years of life, children are in their MOST capable of learning new skills. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University reports that neural circuits, which create the foundation for learning, behavior and health, are most flexible or “plastic” during the first three years of life. Over time, they become increasingly difficult to change.
According to language developmental milestones, by 12 months old, children should have at least 1 word. By 15 months, 10 words. By 18 months, 50 words. By 2 years old, children will have at least 200-300 words and start combining words to make unique phrases. So, think about this, if your toddler has 0 words at 15 months, it will be easier for them to catch up with their peers saying 10 words with intervention than it would be to wait until the child is 2 or even 2.5 saying 0 words. 10 words is much less of a gap than 200+ words combining into phrases!
So, you may be saying, "okay... I get that... but WHY isn't my child talking?!"
The truth of the matter is, there is no way I can tell you why your child isn't talking in a blog post. Your child is very unique and without seeing them and evaluating their skills, there is no way to tell you why they aren't talking. That being said, I can provide some insight on reasons why a child may not talk on time. But, at the end of the day, if you are considered about your child's language development (or even if you're not concerned, but they aren't meeting milestones), please seek a speech and language evaluation.
Reasons why a toddler isn't talking yet:
Your toddler may just be a "late talker." Late talkers are described as children who are not meeting expressive language milestones, yet is mastering all other milestones including language comprehension milestones. Late talkers typically communicate well with gestures, they follow directions, they answer questions non-verbally, they can identify many different items/objects/verbs. Late talkers typically catch up with their peers when parents are given simple strategies to encourage the child to talk on their own. Please note, only a speech therapist will be able to determine the likelihood that your child is just a late talker. It can be difficult to tell at times, so it is typically recommended to start therapy because we don't have a crystal ball to know who will catch up on their own and who will not!
Your child has a speech sound disorder. Sometimes, children will end up having a hard time producing speech sounds resulting in speech that is very difficult to understand. These children are sometimes late to talk. Early intervention is KEY in this population.
Your child is autistic. Often, being late to talk is one of the first characteristics parents and providers notice in children who are later diagnosed with autism. Typically, autistic children are also going to present with delays in language comprehension, social language skills, and play skills. Autistic children may not respond to their name, may prefer a very specific way to play with toys, may have difficulty with following directions, and often have difficulty with imitation of gestures like pointing and waving. It's important to note that autism is not a tragedy. The world has come a very long way to support autistic children than what you may think currently. If your child is autistic, it means your child is the same child they were before knowing they were autistic. Just now, you have better ways to support their learning style.
Your child has apraxia of speech. Apraxia of speech is when children have difficulty with the overall movement to produce clear speech. Typically, children with apraxia are late to talk. They often have good language comprehension skills and use many gestures. Toddlers with apraxia may or may not be reluctant to imitate parents. Children with apraxia are often very difficult to understand when talking.
Your child has developmental language disorder. Developmental language disorder (DLD) occurs when children have difficulty learning language, both in comprehension of language and in the expression of language. Children with DLD only are easy to understand (though, speech sound disorders can co-occur) but they have trouble expressing their thoughts and ideas. They may have difficulty with sentence structure, learning new vocabulary, and following directions. Children later diagnosed with DLD are often late to talk.
Your child has ADHD or Executive Functioning Difficulties. Children with ADHD or executive functioning difficulties are sometimes reported as late talkers.
There are many other reasons why your child may not be talking yet, though, these are just a few common reasons. Please seek a speech and language evaluation if your child is not meeting milestones. Remember, early intervention is KEY. Do not wait, it's much harder to catch up!