My Toddler Is Not Talking. Does He Have a Speech Delay?

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toddler looks out the window at a school busToday, we have fifteen minutes to kill before nap time. We spend it in the living room, my son on the couch, and me in our armchair, looking out the window at our neighborhood’s activities. We live at a busy intersection so there is always something to look at. He points and grunts and unh unh unh’s, his way of saying, “What’s that, Mama?” I tell him, “Car,” “Truck.” He says, “Woof.” I say, “Dog.” 

I am tired of looking out the window. I am tired of paying such close attention so that I can guess what my son is commenting about. The photograph of his grandma and great-grandma? The tissue box? The traffic on our street? The label on my sweatshirt? What holds the attention of a nineteen-month-old for more than a few minutes? This on top of everything else running through my mind: the litany of mundane domestic chores needed to keep a household operational and my own to-dos to keep my life as a writer and poet moving forward. It’s a lot to ask of one person. But then again, isn’t that motherhood? 

My toddler son exceeds every milestone except for verbal communication. My son is not talking. Does he have a speech delay or is he just slow to talk?

Every day I change my mind about how I think of it. Communication is sharing information or ideas; talking is one form of that. I noticed this delay a few months earlier and, while it gave me pause, I didn’t think much of it although I did look at the pediatrician’s Ages and Stages Questionaire. I made a note to myself to bring it up with our pediatrician at our next well-baby visit. 

We have an amazing pediatrician; I trust her with my son’s life. She is not worried about my toddler’s speech delay. He makes great eye contact, she says. His “received communication” is there, she says, which means that he appears to understand what his dad and I tell him. She tells us that when a kid is so focused on one skill (in our case, gross motor) it’s not unusual for another skill to fall behind (in our case, talking). She says take two months. If our son is not talking more by May, we’ll contact a speech therapist

woman holding a toddler on her lap on the sofaI start following a licensed speech pathologist on Instagram. My husband and I implement some of her tips to encourage children to speak: 

  • Give your child the chance to imitate. 
  • Use a singsong voice. 
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. 
  • Give him words to say in the situation, so when we get him from his crib, we say “Mama” or “Dada.” 

My days are spent translating sounds into words and words into their sounds. Breaking them down into fragments and fractures so that the word itself is rendered meaningless to me. But the biggest tip we’ve gotten is how to use those moments when we are truly in sync with our son. Our eyes are locked and we are both aware that we are sharing this experience. That is the best time to teach words. 

I love listening to him babble to himself in his crib when he wakes early. I love hearing him pretend to read. All toddlers do this; they’re mimicking adult conversation. Mimicry and imitation are how kiddos learn speech. 

But what my husband and I are learning is that it takes more than simply reading and talking to your kid to teach them to speak. There’s so much about development that is, indeed, intuitive – climbing the stairs, using a spoon – at least in our experience. But those are all motor skills. My kiddo is extremely physical and always has been. His greatest turmoil as an infant was caused by his lack of mobility, his lack of ability to move about freely in the world. He walked at nine months and he hasn’t looked back. For a kid so keen on freedom and expressing himself, his lack of verbosity feels out of character. 

We’re more than halfway through our two months now. I can’t tell if my son’s talking has improved because I’m so in it I can’t see out of it. 

That closeness is one of motherhood’s blisses and, simultaneously, one of its struggles. I always think of Carrie Bradshaw’s sex haze – that’s how she described it in whatever episode of Sex and the City that was. Sex haze is the time in a new relationship when the sex is so good it blinds you to everything else. Proximity is not always a gift. 

My husband and I had a long conversation last weekend about this very thing. Where do we think we are? Where do we think we’re going? When should we reach out to the pediatrician? Do we even need to? He suggested I write a list of all the words that come out of our son’s mouth. That list is a lot longer than I ever thought. We agreed to put more effort into teaching our son how to say words and sounds. It’s hard to realize it’s your behavior that needs to change. 

Part of my interest in contacting a speech therapist is that I don’t know if we’re on the right track. I can’t tell if his speech delay is improving. This is the part of parenting where I need external validation. All of this invisible activity, this background education that is the foundation for everything my child currently is and might one day become. What if he never says anything other than “woof”? What if I spend the rest of my life translating for him? Is that so bad? 

Probably not for some.

I am desperate for my son to start verbally communicating with me. 

There were many things I was never told about motherhood, like breastfeeding is hard. There are many things I didn’t understand about motherhood, and this is one of them: I have to teach my son everything. Literally everything. Some things he learns by imitation but other things not so much. Verbal communication is taking a lot more effort than either I or my husband ever anticipated. 

bushy green trees on either side of a small river with blue sky in the background

But then again, when my son is understood so clearly by his primary caregivers, why should he bother talking at all? Why talk when we understand the point and the grunt that means “Water, please.” 

The fact that our toddler is not talking is a double-edged sword. As frustrating as it is for me to always need to be present to understand what my son is trying to communicate, it’s also a clear indication of how close we are, how connected and deeply attached. There’s nothing wrong with that. 

 

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Hi. I loved reading your words, your experience, and your parenting style. My name is Terri or many call me “Ms. Terri”. I am and have been and run a “Waldorf -Inspired Preschool/Teacher for 30 plus years. This is the generation I am experiencing communication slowness. Every class has something. I see that too, every parent group in my school/ world meets their children where they e meant to be with a little helping hand or not from me.

    What I am seeing is that THESE SPECIFIC CHILDREN learn better from “children their own size” than from us adults. AND when these children are in circle time- they hear their “friends” or almost a seemingly sibling in my program … they speak; they sing, they grow.
    These children are acting as if … I trust “my people”; I trust my angelic clan. Can you support me? Do you really see me? Give it time…
    It will be perfect once your little one is around other children.

    Meanwhile, keep singing, reading stories, and listening and if speech is available at age 3 in your public preschool/kindergarten … WhY Not try it?

  2. So interesting. Seems you are on the right track. Couldn’t hurt to contact a speech pathologist in another few weeks if his speech doesn’t improve- although it also seems you are doing all the helpful things. That’s the thing about parenting- we are always doing the best we can wanting the best for our children. Keep up the good work!

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