Not Talking Yet? How to Tell If Your Child Has a Language Disorder

If you suspect your child has difficulties with speech, speak up. The key to treating language disorders is early intervention.

baby talk

Perhaps no other milestone, besides walking, generates as much anticipation as a baby's first words. Everyone wants to see—and hear—what their child has to say. But it takes children time to develop language skills. Many babies do not utter "mama," "dada," or "baba" until well into their first year. So how do you know if your child is developmentally on track? What are the signs of language disorders in young children?

Here's everything you need to know about your baby's developing speech, from what they can say and when to what you should be on the lookout for.

When Do Babies Start Talking?

Most babies start "talking" between 9 and 14 months; however, their speech journey begins the moment they are born. Babies begin imitating words and sounds around 4 months, though this early expression is nothing more than "caas," babbles, and "coos." At 6 months, you may hear the first makings of a word. Imitating vowel sounds at this age is common, and by 9 months, you may here ramblings like "ba-ba-ba-ba-ba."

When Do Babies Say Their First Word?

When it comes to their first word, many children say it before (or shortly after) their first birthday, but this can vary. Every child and situation is unique and what is "normal" for one baby may not be the norm for your kid. This means that some children will utter their first true word at 7 months while others may remain mum until 17 months. Still, if you are worried about your child's language development, you can (and should) speak with their pediatrician.

What Should You Do If Your Child Is Slow to Speak?

As mentioned, you shouldn't worry if your child seems "behind." The age range for talking varies, from 6 to 18 months. Of course, if your child is 19 months and still not talking, you may be concerned, but this too can be normal. It takes some children longer to master speech than others. When in doubt, ask your child's doctor and/or consult a speech pathologist.

What Are the Signs of Language Disorders in Young Children?

The signs of language developmental disorders vary, from child to child and disorder to disorder. Some of the most common symptoms of expressive language disorders, or having trouble using language, include difficulty:

  • Understanding gestures
  • Naming objects
  • Using words correctly
  • Using appropriate grammar

Children with expressive language disorders may also have problems expressing thoughts and ideas and/or asking or answering questions.

Those with receptive language disorders, or those who have trouble grasping and understanding language, may have difficulty:

  • Following direction
  • Understanding what people say
  • Learning new words
  • Understanding questions they are asked

Reading comprehension, in older children, is also a problem.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Typically, a late-talking child will catch up with their peers. But a recent study found that over 7% of 5-year-olds didn't grow out of the problem before starting school, notes Marilyn Agin, M.D., a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and medical director of the Early Intervention Program in New York City and one of the authors of a new book, The Late Talker: What to Do if Your Child Isn't Talking Yet. For these children, the consequences of waiting can be grave. Undetected disorders have been linked to poor reading and academic performance and also emotional problems. "I've seen children as young as 3 who are self-conscious about their speech, which can lead to low self-esteem," says Dr. Agin.

You may want to seek help if:

  • By 9 months, your infant has yet to babble or they babble with few or no consonant sounds.
  • By 12 months, your baby looks at something they want but does not use gestures, like pointing, to show you what they desire.
  • By 16 months, you still haven't heard your child's first word(s).
  • By 24 to 30 months, your child has yet to speak in two-word phrases, like "more cookie".
  • By 36 months, your child says only single-syllable words with no final consonants ("ca" for cat, "beh" for bed). They also don't ask questions and have frequent tantrums when not understood.

"You know your child best," says Dr. Agin. "If, deep down, you suspect there's something wrong with your child and you're not satisfied with the response from your pediatrician, make an appointment with a speech pathologist or a neurodevelopmental pediatrician." If your child is under 3, contact your local county-run early intervention program. In most states, evaluations are free; some offer a sliding scale.

If it turns out that your child's delay is developmental and they'll grow out of it, there's no harm done and you can put your mind at ease, says Dr. Agin. On the other hand, if there is a problem, you and your child will benefit tremendously from getting early therapy.

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