Much of my family’s past year was spent inside our home, away from family, friends, and most other sources of socialization. We were lucky to be able to stay home safely during this time, adjusting our schedules to work remotely and finding new ways to connect with our loved ones (Thanks, Facetime!) However, we recognize the massive toll isolation took on us, as we struggled to parent in the absence of community. I particularly noticed the impact of our isolation on my 2-year-old son’s speech and language development. He was becoming increasingly frustrated when attempting to communicate his daily needs because he wasn’t hitting his 2-year-old milestones when it came to the number of words or intelligibility. Wearing masks only made communication more difficult, as I knew it was harder for him to understand and be understood.
I wondered if he had a speech delay.
Luckily, I was able to submit a referral for my son to be evaluated through our state’s Early Intervention (EI) Services based on my concerns. The results of that report did in fact confirm that my son exhibited enough of a delay to qualify for EI and he was able to begin speech sessions in our home, covered by the state.
As a first-time parent, I realized just how valuable it was to have addressed my son’s speech delay sooner rather than later.
We both were being given the tools to improve our communication, allowing me to consider putting him in scenarios, such as preschool, where I might not be there to translate his every word. Even the simple things, like deciding breakfast, got a little easier and gave new meaning to the term, “Happy Meal.” (Sorry, kid, that’s not on the menu.)
I felt relieved that my son was able to receive the help he needed, but I was exhausted after having navigated so much of this by myself. I knew there are countless parents in similar situations, unsure of how to help their child and what to do if speech delay was suspected. In the hopes of saving other parents some of those restless nights I experienced, I turned to Stephanie Klein, a Speech-Language Pathologist from Empower Therapy (and our son’s SLP), to answer some of the most asked questions when it comes to speech and language delay.
This is a big question and one I wish I had a straightforward answer to! The truth is, speech delays occur for a myriad of reasons. Some are more straightforward than others. In some cases, children are genetically predisposed to a delay (e.g., it’s not infrequent for me to have a child on my caseload who has a parent who experienced a speech and/or language delay in childhood). For others, there could be a medical cause (e.g., neurological trauma, disease, etc.). Most of the children I see present with typical development in all areas except for speech and language and there is no clear explanation for their delay. I will say, one area that is often overlooked is hearing. Parents can advocate for a hearing evaluation with their child’s pediatrician. If parents are concerned about their child’s speech/language skills, it’s important to have a hearing test done to rule out that as a factor leading to speech/language delay. If parents have their child evaluated by a Speech-Language Pathologist, they will ask for a hearing history, so this is a great first step.
2) How has the pandemic affected speech-related delays?
The COVID pandemic has had significant impacts on our younger populations in ways I believe will continue to play out for years. The use of masks prohibits young children and babies from the critical use of facial expression as a primary form of learning speech and language. Restricted access to therapy has increased wait times for much-needed intervention. The use of virtual therapy, while a fortunate tool for many, also has limitations and is sometimes just not suitable for certain client populations. When thinking about how the pandemic has affected speech-related delays specifically, I immediately think of children who need intervention and haven’t received it in a timely manner. In addition, the lack of socialization most certainly has an impact on a child’s ability to harness and develop social communication skills (e.g., playing with others, turn-taking, reading body language.)
3) Is it better to “wait and see” or pursue a speech evaluation if you’re concerned about our child’s potential speech delay?
It is my belief that if you are concerned about your child’s use of speech and language, it is best to seek the advice of a professional as soon as you begin to feel it is necessary – or as soon as a care provider such as your child’s pediatrician voices concern. There is no evidence to suggest that intervening “too early” is detrimental. There is, however, a plethora of research out there to suggest that waiting is a disservice to a child.
Speech and language development are different at all stages. Not to mention, each child will benefit most from strategies that are specific to them. One child may engage with bubbles for 30 minutes, while another might cringe at the touch of something wet on their fingertips! With all of that said, there are many general tips that will be suitable for lots of young communicators to help develop speech and language skills. Here are a few:
- Get on your child’s level. Literally! Get on the floor, dig your toes into the sandbox. Jump into their world. For a child, their world is everything and when you join them in it, they’ll respond in beautiful ways.
- PLAY. You’ve likely heard it before, but it bears repeating here: play is a child’s work. It’s how they learn to socialize, how they learn to try after failing. It’s how they learn about physics, math, and processing emotion. Whatever you do, make your approach play-based.
- Make it Multisensory. Like most things, this will not apply equally to all children. A child’s “sensory cup”, or what they tolerate on/in/around their body will be different from child to child. Everyone has a unique level to which they will allow sensory input to happen. Some children LOVE getting muddy. Others will run in the other direction if you grab their rain boots. Be extra sure you meet your child at their level on this one. Water play is a nice approach to building language. You can even work on basic vowel production as you dip your hand in the cool water as you say “Oooo!” Paint, and use your brush to make polka-dots as you say “da da da”. Making things multisensory will add meaning and help build strong memories for your child that they will link back to when reproducing that language.
5) What are some common mistakes parents make when talking to their babies/toddlers?
This is an interesting one! To answer this, I’m going to assume we are speaking of parents who are invested in developing their child’s speech and language skills, but may need a bit of guidance to do it. For this group of folks, I would recommend *always* celebrating any attempt to communicate! Positive reinforcement is a POWERFUL tool. I always encourage parents to acknowledge and honor any attempt their child takes to communicate. Here are a few general tips to keep in mind:
- If you are having a hard time understanding your child’s speech, rather than say “What??” I would try and repeat any part of their message back to them, leaving out the portion that wasn’t understood. This way, they know that at least some of their words were heard, and they just need to try repeating part of their message.
- Narrate play. Take some time to follow your child around, letting them lead the interaction. If they plop down at the play kitchen, try being the narrator of their “show”. Say exactly what they are doing, so they feel acknowledged and have some vocabulary to accompany something they are already motivated to do. Perhaps they will turn around and begin imitating you!
- Slow. Down. It can be frustrating and anxiety-provoking if your child isn’t hitting their speech/language milestones as you expected! Rushing things will often hurt more than help. Breathe, and know that loving them is the first step. Then, take the time to notice your child’s passions. What are they drawn to in the playroom? What books make them crawl into your lap? What makes them laugh? These are the things to focus on, and add some language too. If you have an older child, rushing them to speak, or pressuring them to improve their speech/language, this can often only lead to frustration and withdrawal. As with many things in the parenting world, patience often leads to more wins than pushing through the hard stuff.
6) What resources would you recommend to parents who might be concerned about a speech delay?
First, be careful. There are a LOT of resources out there. Most are great! Some are not. I would be careful for two reasons:
- Be sure that what you read is EVIDENCE-BASED. Pseudoscience is a thing, and it likes to creep its way into blogs and forums. If something you find doesn’t sit well, double and triple-check its sources. Do NOT just take something at face value.
- Don’t let the big world of parenting advice get to you. I’m a parent too, and I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed and even discouraged by everything that is out there. “Why didn’t I think of that??”; “Ugh. This mom has color-coded her bookshelf!! Where ARE my values?!” are some of the things that have gone through my head. Don’t get me wrong. If you are one of those parents who has a schedule of love- and adventure-filled activities for your kid for every day of the year, I applaud you. I’m just not that organized. And sometimes I have to remind myself that that is OKAY. And it is!
So with those two things in mind, here are some websites to help guide the journey of building meaningful, play-based speech and language skills:
– Baby Sign: a nice easy website for finding baby signs to use with the littles.
– Identify the Signs: a website with parent-friendly PDFs on what to expect at various ages for speech/language, and easy ways you can develop and hone these skills
– ASHA, or the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a lot of free links to evidence-based articles
– Caroline Bowen is known for her online resources targeting speech and language therapy. It’s more therapist-focused, but there are a LOT of resources on her website, and it’s a nice place to go as a fact-checking source!
Finally, I would encourage any parent to reach out to their local pediatrician or State Early Intervention program for more information.
Referrals can be made by the parent directly, in addition to other agencies including the child’s school or primary health care provider. It is also important to note that Early Intervention Services cover a wide breadth of concerns you might have about your child’s development including adaptive, behavioral, hearing/vision, communication, etc.
Thank you so much to Stephanie Klein, M.S. CCC-SLP for her time. As a parent, I feel so grateful to have access to these resources and to see the improvements my child is making in the short time he’s been working with her. Our playtimes and routines have dramatically changed, and I can’t wait to continue to see my son’s speech develop.
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Guest Writer: Julie Garwood
Julie Garwood is a mom, wife, traveler, and aspiring minimalist. She has over 10 years experience as a youth development leader, working in various nonprofit organizations with children aged 0-18. She loves to create and curate practical resources for all ages, including activities for her own two young kids. Her writing focuses on the values of mindfulness, family, and intentionality. Follow her on Instagram @commomity and @juliewagenwood