When my 2-year-old daughter announced, “Dah wivver has wadah!” her grandmother looked at me, baffled. “I think she said ‘the river has water,’” I translated. This time I got it right. Sometimes, I had to admit, I had no idea what my daughter was saying.
After being thoroughly assessed by our California school district’s speech and language center, we qualified for state-funded speech therapy when my daughter turned 3. Now a garrulous 4-year-old, she’ll talk your ear off and we understand almost every word she says.
For us, and thousands of other parents, the path to determining whether your child needs speech therapy is sometimes rocky and confusing. It's estimated that 10 percent of all Americans have some speech problem. The good news is that young children can be helped tremendously with a bit of intervention. If you suspect your child may have a speech delay, here are some things to keep in mind:
Understand Typical Milestones
Every child develops at her own pace. But understanding what is typical for each age can help signal when something may be wrong. Some general guidelines to follow are that by 1 year an infant should cry, babble, and pay attention to other voices; by 2, a child should understand a small vocabulary and be able to put some words together in speech. A 3- or 4-year-old should have lots of words at her disposal, use short sentences, and make most sounds; by 5, a child should be able to carry on a simple conversation, be easily understood by strangers, and not stutter or sound much different from playmates.
Some Causes for Delay
Communication depends on three factors: hearing, speaking, and understanding. Problems may occur if there's an abnormality in any of the areas. Usually, however, articulation issues account for 80 percent of speech delays. If your child has difficulty forming words and exhibits lazy tongue, lisp, baby talk, thick speech, or mumbled speech she may benefit from speech therapy.
Get Outside Opinions
Parents can usually decipher their child's speech, and they might not realize what an "average" child sounds like. Ask your child's doctor, day care attendant, baby sitter, or others who are around children for their opinion on your child’s speaking abilities.
When to Test
If you suspect that your child may have a speech issue, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a speech pathologist. They will do an official evaluation and test the child. Evaluations don’t mean a cold room and an endless battery of difficult questions – speech tests are generally conducted with toys and games, and sometimes the parent can stay in the room or observe through a one-way mirror. Areas of testing range from physical skills to vocabulary and grammar knowledge. Parents are usually told the results quite quickly and a written report typically follows within a week.
A good speech therapist can help your child make large gains. But you can help, too. Your child will probably be given a bit of “homework” – articulation exercises to practice with a parent each day. It takes time, no doubt about it. But in the case of our daughter, the benefits have been loud and clear… her “river of words” just keep on flowing and we are grateful for the help we’ve received along the way.
For more information, see the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: