Few moments are as memorable as hearing babies say their very first words. But sometimes that much-anticipated milestone happens later than expected. Is it cause for
Stephen M. Camarata, PhD, a hearing and speech sciences professor at Vanderbilt University and author of Late-Talking Children, says kids should be “speaking” by
the time they’re 18 months old. Specifically, babies should be uttering several single words, shaking their heads, saying “no” and pointing to things to show what they want,
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But, he reassures, a delay in speech does not automatically mean autism or other disorders. “The overwhelming majority of children who talk late do not have autism,” Camarata says, adding that speech delays happen in about one in 10 children.
Denise Ruscio, speech pathologist and clinical supervisor of the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at Hofstra University, says that if you’re in doubt, have your child checked out.
“Parents should also consider getting a hearing evaluation to rule out hearing loss as a cause,” she says. Ruscio says there are several risk factors that can contribute. “Boys
are at a higher risk than girls,” she says. “A pregnancy shorter than 37 weeks can also be a risk factor. And, although there is no 'late-talker gene,' there can sometimes be a genetic component. Many parents of late talkers were late talkers themselves.”
Camarata agrees, noting that both he and his son were speech-delayed. And in many cases, visual and spatial centers of the brain develop before those that control verbal ability, he says. “It’s sort of a trade-off between an early development of reasoning and analytical abilities and the development of verbal skills,” he says. What’s more, explains Ruscio,
delayed speech tends to accompany slowed motor development in a lot of children.
France Weill, PhD, the founder and director of the Neve Yerushalayim-Ma’alot Speech and Language Clinic in Israel and a speech pathology professor at New York City’s Touro
College, says once disorders such as autism or hearing loss have been ruled out, parents can help by encouraging their kid to verbalize the world around him. Talk to him about
what he’s doing (“I see you’re building with blocks and you have the blue one on top”), without overwhelming him with a lot of questions (“What color is this block?” “What are you doing?” “What shape is on the side of the block?”).
Or, if your child is playing with a ball and says, “Ball,” reply with, “Oh wow, a big ball!” This will help him build his vocabulary. “If they are doing simple tasks, such as helping
set the table or pairing socks, speak to them in short sentences about their activity,” she advises.
Weill, who has a practice in Teaneck, also suggests monitoring your kid’s development by writing down any new words he says. “Keep track of your child’s comprehension,
and make sure he understands simple commands,” phrases like “Come here,” “Sit down” or “Drink your milk.”
Ruscio adds that it’s usually a matter of being patient. “Recent research indicates that about 50 to 70 percent of late talkers catch up to their peers by the time they start
school without any treatment or intervention,” she says.
Martta Kelly has been a health and wellness writer for more than 15 years. She lives in West Orange.