When your child is a late talker

When your child is a late talker
Why isn’t my child talking yet? Is this normal? How can I encourage them to speak?


Most children say their first word between the ages of 10 and 16 months and can form short sentences by the age of 2. However, it’s also normal for some children to start talking a bit later.

Why isn’t my child talking yet?

Some children learn the basics of communication before expressing themselves using language. For example, they make eye contact, make sounds in response to people talking to them, and point to the things they want. They also understand many words before saying any themselves. These children simply need more time than others to start talking, just as some need a little more time to start walking.

Others don’t feel as much of a need to express themselves in words, especially if they have older siblings. They may be happy to let the older ones speak for them. Another reason young children may be less inclined to talk is because their parents meet their needs without their having to express them verbally.

Being a late talker doesn’t mean a child will have inferior language skills. Up to half of 2-year-olds who speak very little will have the same language level as other kids by the age of 4 or 5. Only a small percentage of children will have persistent language difficulties.

As long as your child is trying to communicate in some way (e.g., with gestures) and can understand instructions, it’s okay if they don’t take to speaking right away.

Did you know?
A sequence of sounds that resembles the word used by adults and always refers to the same object, person, or event is also considered a word.

How to encourage your child to start talking

  • Talk to them whenever you’re together. Every day, talk about what you and your child are doing, and name the things that interest them.
  • Give them your full attention when they talk. Position yourself at your child’s level so that you can look them in the eye when they speak. Pay attention to all of their attempts to communicate, including when they use gestures, and even when they smile.
  • When talking to them, speak slowly and pause frequently. This gives your child time to understand what you’re saying and, most importantly, the opportunity to respond.
  • Don’t overanticipate their needs: give your child the time to ask you for something or to tell you they want to eat or play.
  • Guess what they’re trying to say through their gestures and sounds so that you can put the idea into words.
  • Imitate the gestures, sounds, and noises they make so they understand that you’re interested in what they’re attempting to communicate.
  • Make noises yourself (e.g., mimic the sounds that animals or vehicles make). Your child may want to follow your lead. Once they get into the habit of imitating sounds, they’ll eventually want to imitate your words, too.
  • Try to be expressive, vary the tone of your voice, and speak a little higher than usual. It’s been shown that talking to children this way keeps them more engaged.
  • Use gestures to help them understand new words. You can stop making the gestures once your child has learned the words.
  • Let them lead when you’re playing together, and name the objects you play with. Pay particular attention to what interests them the most: this is what they’ll want to name first.
  • Emphasize important words and phrases, articulating them clearly so your child can understand them.
  • Ask them simple questions that can be answered with a gesture or a word, such as “Where?” or “Who?”
  • Sing nursery rhymes or tell parts of a story your child knows well. Stop occasionally in the middle of a line to see if they can finish it for you.
  • Read them children’s books often.
  • Try not to show frustration if they cry or whine when trying to express themself, even if it’s difficult. Instead, put what they want to communicate into words.

When should you consult a professional?

If at 18 months of age your child still doesn’t seem to want to communicate, doesn’t use gestures (such as pointing), or seems to have difficulty understanding what you say, talk to their doctor or contact the Ordre des orthophonistes et audiologistes du Québec (French only).

Things to keep in mind

  • It’s normal for some children not to start talking until after the age of 16 months.
  • Before age 2, the most important thing is that your child tries to communicate and understands short words or simple instructions.
  • Many children who are late talkers simply don’t find it necessary to speak. A good way to prevent this from happening is to avoid overanticipating your child’s needs.

 

Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Marie-Ève Bergeron-Gaudin, M.Sc., speech-language pathologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: July 2018

 

Photo: iStock.com/Jennifer_Sharp

 

Sources and references

  • Bergeron-Gaudin, Marie-Ève. J’apprends à parler : le développement du langage de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2014, 180 pp.
  • Daviault, Diane. L’émergence et le développement du langage chez l’enfant. Montreal, Chenelière Éducation, 2011, 256 pp.
  • Pepper, Jan, and Elaine Weitzman. It Takes Two to Talk: A Practical Guide for Parents of Children with Language Delays. Toronto, The Hanen Centre, 2017, 171 pp.
  • Rescorla, Leslie A., and Philip S. Dale. Late Talkers: Language Development, Interventions, and Outcomes. Baltimore, Brookes Publishing Co., 2013, 416 pp.

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