What to Do If You're Concerned About Your Child's Speech

May is Better Hearing & Speech Month (BHSM). Since I’m a speech language pathologist (SLP), I thought it would be worth addressing what I do in my work and bringing attention to communication disorders here on the blog.

While communication disorders occur in people across the lifespan, the main focus of this post is on children. In my past work with children as an SLP, I’ve heard parents say that they aren’t concerned about their child’s speech and language development for a number of reasons:

  • “I was slow to learn language as a child. My child will catch up.”

  • “My child isn’t even school-age yet. We’ll address it when he gets to school.”

  • “My baby isn’t even at the age to speak yet. I know what he wants and needs.”

As an SLP, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits for children who have received early detection and treatment for speech and language disorders. I’ve also seen the difficulties of children who lived with speech and language disorders for years until they received help.

That’s why I’m an advocate for increasing awareness of communication disorders and a supporter of early detection and intervention. 


Did you know these statistics?

  • Nearly 1 in 12 (7.7 percent) of U.S. children ages 3-17 has had a disorder related to voice, speech, language or swallowing in the past 12 months.

  • The prevalence of speech sound disorders in young children is 8 to 9 percent. By the first grade, roughly 5 percent of children have noticeable speech disorders, including stuttering, speech sound disorders, and dysarthria.

  • More than three million Americans (about one percent) stutter.

  • Research suggests that the first 6 months of life are the most crucial to a child’s development of language skills. For a person to become fully competent in any language, exposure must begin as early as possible, preferably before school age.

Source: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Speech and language are crucial to learning and academic achievement. As you can imagine, a child who has difficulty in speech or language may have difficulty with reading, writing, speaking, or listening – all very important for learning.

He or she may also have difficulty socially connecting with peers and making friends. A communication delay or disorder can be detrimental to success in school and beyond.


What are some signs of a communication delay or disorder?

These are early signs of communication disorders in children between birth to 4 years of age:

  • Does not interact socially (infancy and older)

  • Does not follow or understand what you say (starting at 1 year)

  • Says only a few sounds, words, or gestures (18 months to 2 years)

  • Words are not easily understood (18 months to 2 years)

  • Does not combine words (starting at 2 years)

  • Struggles to say sounds or words (3 to 4 years)

Source: Identify the Signs


What do I do if I think my child may have a communication delay or disorder?

Early detection and intervention is important for children who are at-risk for or have speech and language disorders. While some children may eventually develop normal speech and language skills on their own, many will not.

Intervention can improve a child’s chances for typical speech and language development. The key is not to wait to seek help.

If a child is younger than 3 years of age, contact your pediatrician or your state regarding early intervention services. If a child is 3 years and older, he may qualify for special education services through the child’s school district.

It does not matter if the child does not yet attend school or is in public or private school. These services are provided free or at low cost.

If you’re interested in pursuing options outside of government-provided services, many private clinics and university clinics are available. Some clinics offer sliding scales or pro bono services for those who are unable to afford services at full cost.

Another option is to explore reimbursement by your employer or health account. Some companies provide benefits that cover treatment.

In San Francisco, people who are employed in the city and who meet certain conditions qualify for the SF Covered Medical Reimbursement Account or SF Medical Reimbursement Account.

These accounts are funded by a person’s employer and can be used for eligible health expenses, which can include speech therapy.


What are some ways to facilitate speech and language learning at home?

You are your child’s first and most important teacher. Although an SLP may provide you with information on speech and guidance for home practice, you are essential to your child’s success.

That’s because young children typically spend the most time with their parents. Most language and social interactions are with family. 

Because this is a frugal living blog, I should point out that there are many free and low cost ways to facilitate language learning in the home. Children love to play and have fun.

Playing is children’s way of exploring their world and learning. You can incorporate language learning into everyday play and daily activities.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) provides these suggestions (full list here):

  • Reinforce attempts by maintaining eye contact, responding with speech, and imitating vocalizations using different patterns and emphasis. (birth to 2 years)

  • Teach your baby to imitate your actions, including clapping you hands, throwing kisses, and playing finger games such as pat-a-cake, peek-a-boo, and the itsy-bitsy-spider. (birth to 2 years)

  • Read to your child. Sometimes "reading" is simply describing the pictures in a book without following the written words. Choose books that are sturdy and have large colorful pictures that are not too detailed. Ask your child, "What's this?" and encourage naming and pointing to familiar objects in the book. (birth to 2 years)

  • Expand vocabulary. Name body parts, and identify what you do with them. "This is my nose. I can smell flowers, brownies, popcorn, and soap." (2 to 4 years)

  • Take advantage of daily activities. For example, while in the kitchen, encourage your child to name the utensils needed. Discuss the foods on the menu, their color, texture, and taste. (4 to 6 years)

The first few years of life are critical for speech and language development. I know there’s nothing more that you or I would like to see than the children in our lives happy and thriving.

So if you are concerned about your child’s development, act sooner rather than later to increase your child’s chances of success socially, academically, and in every other area of life.

Seek out assistance from the sources mentioned above and contact a speech language pathologist who can help determine if your child may benefit from treatment.  

What to Do If You're Concerned About Your Child's Speech