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Written by Caroline Meyer

Speech and language delays are a development problem that is characterized by speaking and vocabulary that is not at the expected level when compared with the child’s peers.  It is not uncommon and as many as 1 in 10 children share this development problem.  

These delays can take the form of receptive or expressive delays or a combination of these. A delay in receptive language is when a child battles to understand language. A delay in expressive language is when a child battle with verbalizing. 

My child doesn’t talk much, is this a speech delay? 

Some children develop faster than others and some a little slower. If you notice that your child does not talk as much as other children of the same age, there is a possibility that he or she has a speech and language delay.  Based on age, there are a few milestones your child should pass when it comes to speech.  

 If they are unable to do the following, you may want to approach a professional for assessment : 

  • Not babbling by around 12 to 15 months 
  • Say basic words such as mama, dada, baba by 15 months 
  • Does not understand basic words such as yes and no by 18 months 
  • Not talking by 2 years old 
  • Cannot talk in sentences by 3 years 
  • Unable to tell you a story by 5 years old 
  • Unable to follow directions  
  • Poor articulation or pronunciation of words 
  • Leaving important words out of sentences 

What could be the cause of the speech delay? 

There are a number of issues that can cause a speech delay.  These are the most common factors : 

  • Hearing loss/impairment  
  • Mental retardation  
  • Mental disability  
  • Autism 
  • Slow development  
  • Severe neglect 
  • Psychosocial deprivation 
  • Being a twin 
  • Cerebral palsy 
  • Elective mutism (the child chooses not to talk) 

Who is at risk for speech delays? 

Speech and language problems are a lot more common in males than in females. Children born prematurely or who had a low birth weight are more likely to have language development problems. Families that have a history of speech and language problems or who have low levels of education are more likely to be below average in this area of development. A child brought up in a bilingual home may also take longer to talk or may talk in only one language for some time. 

How will I know if my child has a speech and language delay? 

If you suspect that your child might have this developmental problem, you need to make an appointment with your doctor to assess the situation.  Your doctor will listen to the child’s speech as well as run tests to check basic mental development. A hearing screening may be needed. An audiologist would check your child for hearing problems. 

A speech and language pathologist would be the next step. This specialist will run a comprehensive assessment of receptive and expressive language to work out if your child has a speech and language delay. The assessment focusses on non-verbal and verbal communication.  After this assessment, further testing may be recommended. 

How can I prevent a speech and language delay for my child? 

There are some causes that cannot be mitigated and there is not much you can do to improve the situation. If your child has difficulty due to hearing loss, implants or hearing aids may help improve your child’s speech and they may be able to reach the same levels as other children their age quite quickly. You can spend time from young talking to your child and encouraging them to interact with you to improve their language abilities.  

You can talk to your child about anything, just ensuring the words are being said and hopefully understood. If your child speaks to you, listen and respond to encourage them to talk.  

How can you treat speech and language delays? 

For some children, no treatment will be needed. They may just take a little longer but will start talking normally eventually. If treatment is needed, this will be based on the individual child’s needs. A treatment plan may be laid out with a speech and language pathologist to develop language skills so they can speak and understand better.  

They can also be taught to read lips. For other children, specialists such as audiologists, occupational therapists, psychologists or social workers may be involved to remedy or mitigate the causes of the speech and language delay. If there is an underlying health problem your doctor may refer you to a neuropsychologist. If this is needed, your doctor can arrange a referral for you. 

Will my child’s speech and language improve? 

Some children will catch up on their own. Some children may improve with treatment. Some children face issues such as problems reading or behavioural problems due to the delay in their language development. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the sooner treatment can be implemented and the more likely it is that the situation will improve.  

Day to day living with a child with a language delay 

Not being able to express feelings in words can cause a child to become frustrated and may cause them to behave in an unacceptable manner. They are likely to be more aggressive and may try inappropriate methods to get your attention. This can be upsetting for both you and your child. Encourage speech and praise your child when they do verbalise their emotions. Spend time with your child talking or reading a book to encourage language development.  

There are some disabilities both mental and physical that could result in long term language delays. Unfortunately, in these cases, you may not be able to bring your child up to the level of their peers, but encouragement and praise can still bring some improvement over time.  Encourage language as much as possible by singing, reciting rhymes, reading out loud and responding to your child’s attempts at speech. 

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