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Time to talk: Childrens speech development


'Parents should be reassured that a younger child's speech may often sound unclear and there may be nothing to be concerned about'

'Parents should be reassured that a younger child's speech may often sound unclear and there may be nothing to be concerned about'

'Parents should be reassured that a younger child's speech may often sound unclear and there may be nothing to be concerned about'

Many parents, particularly firsttime ones, have questions about childhood communication development.

It can be hard to know what to expect and when to expect it. The Irish Association of Speech & Language Therapists (IASLT) recently published a ‘ Guidelines and Advice’ sheet on its website ( www.iaslt.ie) to address such concerns.

According to the IASLT, while there are norms for language and communication development, parents should be reassured that there is wide variation in typical development.

Children’s communication development actually begins long before they start to speak, explains speech and language therapist (SLT) Derval McDonagh on behalf of the IASLT.

“Even studies done on babies in the womb show that they are primed to tune into voices and sounds in their environment before they are born.”

So what sort of pattern can be expected after they are born? “ When babies reach the age of around eight to 10 months, they may begin to understand their first words,” she says. “By about 12 to 18 months they may say their first words, and by aged two they might begin to put short, simple phrases together.

“Children’s understanding of language really progresses rapidly from 12 months to two years. Meanwhile, their ability to express themselves may be improving and they may begin to combine more words together.”

While all this language development is happening, the child’s speech is also rapidly maturing. “All young children will mispronounce words – for example a young child may say ‘ tat’ instead of ‘cat’,” continues McDonagh. “By aged three the child should be understood by familiar people. By aged five strangers should understand your child’s speech clearly.”

Speech problems

While there are general norms for speech development, some children may experience difficulties in certain areas. For instance, speech sound development problems occur when the child’s speech is difficult to understand – sounds are mixed up or one sound is used instead of another.

“ This is typical for younger children, but if your child is three and you are still finding it difficult to understand his/her speech, the IASLT recommends it may be helpful to get an opinion from an SLT,” says McDonagh.

Stammering can be another issue. “Many children will go through phases of something called ‘normal non-fluency’. This is where they repeat the beginning sounds in a word, for example ‘ ba ba ba baby’. This may be a part of language development. The IASLT advises parents to try and not draw too much attention to this – let the child finish her sentence. The child may grow out of it. For some children though, the non-fluency develops into a stammer. In this case you would be advised to get an opinion from your SLT,” she explains.

“Some children can also experience delays in their language development. They are sometimes called ‘ late talkers’. By aged two, the child would typically begin to combine two words together but some kids may have what is called ‘receptive language delay’, where they have difficulties understanding what is being said to them. Other children may have expressive language delays where they have difficulties expressing themselves or forming sentences. Some children have a combination of both.”

Getting help

The IASLT points out that children will develop at their own rates. “ While norms are helpful, they do not capture everything about your child,” McDonagh stresses.

“Parents should be reassured that a younger child’s speech may often sound unclear and there may be nothing to be concerned about. But if they are concerned they should trust their instincts and seek advice.

“ The general rule of thumb for bringing your child to see a professional is if: you think your child has difficulties following instructions compared to other children of the same age; if she has no interest in playing with peers or in interacting with you; if she is a late talker; if she has a stammer; or if she is three and you are having difficulty understanding her speech. If your child’s voice is hoarse, talk to your GP first.”

A consultation with a professional may involve parental interviews about the child’s speech and language skills, combined with some assessments. The standardised assessments help the SLT to see exactly what the difficulty is and helps to build up a profile of the child’s communication strengths and needs. This process helps inform whether treatment is necessary, and what the focus should be.

And so what sort of outcome a parent can expect if a child requires treatment?

“ The good news is many children will do really well with some treatment and often with just some advice for the parents. The key is that parents are the partners in therapy; they are the ones who interact with the child on a day-to-day basis and who need to be empowered to carry over goals at home. The important thing to know is that you are well equipped as a parent to deal with any communication issues that arise for your child,” affirms McDonagh.