Warning Signs of a Toddler Language Development Delay

Mother holding baby while doctor checks her ears

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In the area of language development, timelines are helpful, but overall, it's important to consider whether or not your child is effective at communicating rather than focus on a set number of words in her vocabulary or a date on a calendar.

If you're experiencing difficulty understanding or communicating with your toddler and are starting to worry if there might be a problem, ask yourself the following questions.

If you answer No to any of these questions, speak with your child's health care provider or teacher, or contact an early intervention program for further testing and diagnosis.

Does She Make Any Attempt to Speak?

By 12 months of age, your toddler should be attempting to communicate verbally with you. Grunts and partial words (like ba-ba for the bottle) do count.

Does She Seem Interested in Others?

When at home and other people enter or leave the room, your child should notice and react. Reactions could include smiling when seeing a familiar person, crying when you leave or trying to follow you as you exit a room. She should be interested in what other people are doing, for instance, if someone is eating, reading a book or playing with a toy nearby.

Does She Use New Words With Increasing Regularity?

Once your toddler starts trying to use words, you should see steady progress in her language development. Once the words are in her vocabulary they should stay there and there should be an increase in words from that point forward. Be concerned if your child's vocabulary seems stagnant for more than a few months or if she used to have a word for something and that word has now vanished.

Does She React When Music Is Played?

Most toddlers show some sort of reaction to music. If your child is clapping her hands, swaying or attempting to dance, shaking her head, humming or attempting to sing, then don't be concerned. If she doesn't do these things, there could be a problem.

Are Her Sounds Similar to What Others Around Her Make?

While everyone's voice will have unique characteristics, your toddler's speech patterns should reflect what she hears around her. Her long a may be drawn out or show a bit of twang if you're from the South, for example, and that's perfectly normal. Her long a or any of her vowel sounds should not sound consistently off or inaccurate to your ears, though.

Does She Consistently Pronounce Consonants Correctly?

If her vowel sounds sound pretty normal to you but she has her own way of saying certain words that don't seem to improve over time, that can be grounds for concern. Examples of this include frequently leaving off the beginning or ending consonants or always replacing a t for a c sound.

Does She Know and Respond to Her Own Name?

When you say your child's name, she should turn her head toward you or look directly at you. Babies as young as 6 months can do this. Be concerned if it hasn't happened by your child's first birthday.

Does She Use More Words than Gestures?

Unless a primary caregiver communicates using signs, your child's sole method of communicating with you should not be with gestures. In addition, if you are using baby signs, then those signs should be recognizable and distinct versus simply pointing or waving. By about 2 years of age, she should have transitioned into using more words than gestures.

Do Others Seem to Understand Her?

There's a certain level of understanding that parents have with their own kids that strangers just don't have. If you act as a translator for others some of the time, that's OK. If your child is 3 and people still ask you to translate all the time, then there's cause for concern.

Can She Follow Simple Verbal Commands?

Some parents find themselves doing everything for their child not realizing that they're doing so because of a possible issue with language development. Step back a moment and assess whether your toddler is capable of following common verbal requests like "Bring me your shoe," or "Hand me your sippy cup."

Has She Started to Put Words Together?

Around two years, your child should be putting together words in meaningful ways. She might say "Me hungry" when she wants to eat or "Go out" when she wants to go outside, for example. If she is not doing this by 2.5 years old you should bring her to see a doctor as it may be cause for concern.

Is She Able to Imitate?

Be concerned if your child has never imitated sounds or gestures before. Some common, early imitations might include a cat meowing, a dog barking, a parent saying "uh oh" or waving "bye-bye" and clapping when you clap.

Has She Been Without Ear Infections for Most of Her Life?

If she's had more than her fair share of ear infections or she's had ear infections that were late getting diagnosed, then she could have had issues with her hearing then or she may still be having them now. An ear injury (to one or both ears) is also something to keep in mind when talking to your health care provider or anyone else who may be working with your child.

Signs You Might Not Need to Worry

There are other questions related to language development that you might answer Yes to which may actually alleviate your worries or fears.

Does She Have Other Siblings?

Sometimes an older brother will frequently speak for his younger sister and cause you to imagine that there is a delay when there isn't. This can also mask a delay that is actually there. Regularly speak with your toddler privately to make sure she's capable of communicating on her own.

Is Your Child a Twin or a Multiple?

Twins and multiples sometimes develop special ways of communicating with each other. They can also tend to develop speech and communication skills at a different rate than other children. Sometimes this is a concern and other times it is not. The best way to know the difference is to educate yourself about the speech development issues unique to multiples.

Are There Two or More Languages Spoken at Home or School?

If your child is regularly exposed to more than one language (sign language or spoken languages), then she may be slower to speak. This is not generally a sign of a true developmental delay. Just think of it as your child doing twice the amount of language processing and you can see why it takes longer for communication to develop. Raising multilingual children has many benefits, so don't avoid speaking more than one language just so your toddler will speak more or sooner.

Does She Stutter?

Most stuttering develops in children during the toddler years and it's a perfectly normal part of language development. Be concerned if it hasn't disappeared about 6 months after it starts or if the stuttering is accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions.

A Word From Verywell

Language delays can be caused by many different factors (like hearing issues or muscle problems) or could be part of other conditions such as a learning disability or autism. In any case, prompt evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment are the keys to the best outcome for your toddler.

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Article Sources
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  6. National Institutes of Health. Stuttering. Updated March 6, 2017.