We eagerly await our children's first words, so it can be disappointing—and worrisome—if they're slow to come. But the good news is that most kids who seem to talk "late" catch up without any problems by the time they're around 2. About one in four children is a late talker—and most don't need special help to get them on track. Here's what to expect with your child's speech development, and how to tell if you need to see a specialist.
Though speech develops pretty much the same way for all children, the pace can vary considerably from child to child. As a rule of thumb, children should be able to say one word at about 1, two-word combinations at 18 months to 2 years and three-word sentences before turning 3. When speech specialists evaluate delayed speech, they care as much about a child's understanding as they do about how much he speaks. For instance, although a typical 18-month-old can say 50 to 100 words, he can understand far more. Making gestures and following directions indicate that your child is understanding and communicating, and there's likely little reason to worry. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association offers a detailed chart of language development. Find out how you can gauge your child's progress.
Reasons behind speech delays
Heredity and temperament can make for a linguistic late bloomer, as can a parent's anticipating a child's every need ("Do you want your bottle?") rather than letting her speak for herself. Some kids who tend to be late talkers include:
They often develop speech later than girls, though there's usually only about a one- to two-month lag. At 16 months, boys use an average of 30 words, while girls tend to use around 50.
Babies born early often take longer than others to reach milestones, but by age 2 they usually catch up to their peers. Pediatricians say that when gauging a preemie's development, parents should begin counting from the child's due date, not her birth date. A child born three months early can seem like a later talker but might be progressing just fine.
Speech pathologists estimate that as many as 50 percent of all multiples have some language delay. Prematurity, low birth weight and medical intervention at birth—all of which occur more often among multiples—can contribute to language delays.
Children with chronic ear infections:
If fluid in the ear persists for months at a time—especially during the first year, when a child is starting to process language—it can result in poor hearing, and thus delayed speech.
Kids who are focused on other skills:
If a child is late to talk but her overall development is progressing on schedule, she may just be trying to perfect one skill, like walking, at the expense of speaking.
Signs your child might have a delay
Before your child reaches age 2, there's wide variation in what's considered normal. But some signs that may indicate he needs help:
At 1 year:
He isn't babbling or speaking in mock sentences at all. He doesn't seem to understand or respond when you talk.
At 18 months:
He hasn't said at least one word.
At 2 years:
He says only a few words and communicates mostly through grunting and pointing, or he's losing language skills—either his vocabulary has shrunk or he no longer talks very much.
At 2 1/2 years:
He's still speaking in single syllables, drops final consonants or doesn't have a vocabulary of 50 words.
At 3 years:
Strangers can't understand his pronunciation, or he speaks using only simple two-word phrases.
What to do
The best time to get professional help is when your child is around 2 1/2—the age when late bloomers usually catch up. Language problems are addressed with speech therapy or by treating undiagnosed ear infections or hearing problems. Your pediatrician can recommend a speech-language pathologist; the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, in Rockville, Maryland (800-638-8255), can also provide a referral.
Before age 2 1/2, listening to your voice is a great way for your child to learn to talk, so read aloud, sing songs and ask open-ended questions to invite conversation. Blowing bubbles can develop oral muscles, and toy phones and pretend play encourage talking.
Famous late talkers
When you're tired of being asked when your child is going to talk, remember that these successful people didn't begin talking until they were at least 2—and, in some cases, 4!
Gary Becker, Nobel Prize-winning economist
Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
Julia Robinson, the first woman president of the American Mathematical Society
Arthur Rubinstein, piano virtuoso
Edward Teller, physicist and nuclear power pioneer
Kids acquire speech, like all the other developmental skills, at their own pace. Most children who talk late eventually catch up. But if you have concerns about your child, don't hesitate to discuss them with your pediatrician, who can guide you to a specialist if necessary.