Why Toddlers Can Have Speech Delays

A wide range of issues can disrupt your toddler's speech development. Physical impairments can prevent your child from correctly forming words. Alternatively, processing problems may keep your child's internal communication system from carrying a message between the brain and mouth.

If you are concerned about possible delays in your child's verbal skills or understanding of language, consider these factors. All of them can play a role in speech and language delays.


Physical Impairments

Close-up of a father face to face with his daughter

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A cleft palate is one extreme example of an oral impairment that can affect speech. Another problem that can affect speech production is having an unusually short frenulum, which is the fold that holds the tongue to the lower mouth.

Physical problems like this are most often caught by your pediatrician before your child begins to start talking. In some cases, however, they may be missed until your child starts to see a dentist or begins to show signs of delayed speech.


Oral-Motor Problems

Many kids with speech delays have a problem with communication in the areas of the brain responsible for speech production. This can be due to problems such as childhood apraxia of speech (CAS).

In this case, your child may have problems controlling the muscles and parts of their body that they use to speak. Their lips, tongue, or jaw, for instance, may not do what they "should" do to produce certain words.

These types of speech problems may exist on their own or along with other oral-motor difficulties. For instance, some children with speech delays also have trouble eating.


General Developmental Delay

A speech delay may be related to other developmental delays. Of course, every child hits milestones at their own pace. You might want to speak with your pediatrician about having an assessment done, however, if you notice that other skills and abilities are also developing slowly.

Specifically, pay attention to whether motor, verbal and cognitive skills are on target for your child's age level.

Speech problems related to developmental delays may include speaking very little (or not at all), not understanding what is being said by others, repeating what others say, or having no emotion or inflection and intonation when speaking.


Hearing Problems

Hearing problems are also commonly related to delayed speech. This is why a child's hearing should be tested by an audiologist whenever there's a speech concern.

A child who has hearing loss may have trouble both understanding others' speech and hearing their own vocalizations. This makes it hard to understand and master words. It also prevents the child from imitating words and using language fluently and correctly.


Ear Infections

Unfortunately, it's all too common for children to have more than one ear infection before their third birthday. That doesn't mean, though, that a child who has had an infection is automatically at risk for hearing problems and speech delays.

A common ear infection that clears up after treatment without a problem won't increase your child's risk of speech problems. Chronic infections, on the other hand, can impact speech.

These types of infections are characterized by inflammation and infection in your child's middle ear. The infection may not clear up with typical treatments and may keep coming back within short periods of time.

If your child falls into that category, your pediatrician may want you to see an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist or may recommend that your child gets ear tubes.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Grigos MI, Moss A, Lu Y. Oral articulatory control in childhood apraxia of speech. J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2015;58(4):1103-18. doi:10.1044/2015_JSLHR-S-13-0221

  3. Lang-roth R. Hearing impairment and language delay in infants: Diagnostics and genetics. GMS Curr Top Otorhinolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2014;13:Doc05. doi:10.3205/cto000108

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By Maureen Ryan
Maureen Ryan is a freelance writer, editor, and teaching consultant specializing in health, parenting, and education.