How to Know if Your Toddler Needs a Speech Therapist

Toddler smiling

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Hearing your baby say their first word is a magical moment, but it does happen at different times for each kid. You might be concerned if your toddler seems to have a small vocabulary, if their pronunciation is off, or if they aren't stringing words together into short phrases. Know that children develop at their own pace, and there's a range of what is considered "on track" in terms of speech development.

One-fifth of children talk later than their peers. A way you can support your child is by spending time each day talking, reading, and singing to your baby, starting from birth.

That said, if your little one's verbal communication is still lagging by 18 to 24 months, speech therapy may help.

"If you are concerned your child is not smiling at you, copying you, completing reciprocal play, babbling, or saying words, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a speech therapist," says Lauren Meffen, MA CCC/SLP, CLT, a speech-language pathologist and the owner Wildflower Therapy. "An evaluation will be completed utilizing standardized assessments and norms specific to your child’s age."

What Is Speech Therapy?

Speech therapy is a form of intervention that is guided by a licensed clinician known as a speech language pathologist (SLP), or speech therapist. An SLP may work in a variety of places including the home, early intervention childcare centers, schools, or medical settings.

Children under age 3 may receive what is called early intervention speech therapy. Early intervention programs are state and federally funded. You can get a referral through your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider, or you can reach out to speech therapist offices in your area.

Kids who are older than 3 can get services through the public school system. These services are generally available even if your child does not attend public school. Speech therapy can be completed during the school day, and the speech therapist will communicate with your child's teacher.

There are options for private practices, as well, which may or may not accept your insurance.

Who Is Speech Therapy For?

Kids might need speech therapy if they have a speech, language, or feeding disorder. Speech disorders relate to pronunciation. For example, they may struggle to pronounce the letters r or l, or they may stutter when they speak.

Language disorders are related to struggles with communication. Kids might have difficulty processing language or cognitively forming it. Language disorders may be accompanied by learning disorders, such as Autism.

Kids who need speech therapy for feeding disorders often have trouble swallowing. They may also struggle with chewing or refuse solid foods.

Signs a Child Needs a Speech Therapist

Most babies will start babbling by age 1, and they should respond to their name being called. Between the ages of 1 and 2, you can expect them to follow simple commands, and point to body parts when asked. They should learn a new word roughly every week.

By age 2, you can expect them to start speaking in two-word phrases and say about 50 to 100 words. If your child isn't doing these things, discuss it with their healthcare provider.

Poor pronunciation, stuttering, or having a learning disability such as Autism may also be signs that your child can benefit from speech therapy.

If your child stops talking or regresses in language, you should also reach out to their healthcare provider. Rejecting food or reducing intake of liquids or solids is an urgent sign that your baby needs an evaluation and may require a special type of speech therapy called feeding therapy.

How to Find a Speech Therapist

Reach out to your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider if you have concerns about their language development. They will be able to connect you with state or federally-funded programs if they believe that speech therapy is needed.

They may also be able to recommend private practice clinics in your area. "I suggest that you also your own research," says Meffen. "Call local speech therapy offices and find out if they are participating providers with an early intervention program."

What to Expect at Speech Therapy

In general, speech therapy sessions will be about 30 minutes and might be weekly or more often depending on the clinician's recommendations and the severity of your child’s delay. Exactly how each session will look will depend on your child's needs and on their SLP's specific approach.

"For smaller children 5 years and below, this is play-based therapy," says Stephanie Richardson, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist at Brooks Rehabilitation. "We are working together with specific toys and manipulatives to model the language during this time."

The targeted language practice that happens during therapy sessions is meant to carry over into real-life situations. Ideally, kids will naturally start using these skills at home and at school, says Richardson.

Early intervention programs are state and federally funded. If you choose a private clinic, you may be responsible for a copay or for out-of-pocket costs. Be sure to check with your insurance provider with any questions about coverage or fees.

A Word From Verywell

All kids develop at their own pace and some will talk sooner than others. Often, it's just a matter of time before kids are talking and communicating fluidly.

If your child isn't saying two-word phrases by age 2 or has a vocabulary of fewer than 50 words, speech therapy may help them learn how to express themselves effectively. Speech therapy may also correct issues like stuttering or problems with pronunciation. Your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider can assist you to find an SLP who can help.

6 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.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Language Delays in Toddlers: Information for Parents.

  2. US Department of Health and Human Services. Talk, Read, and Sing Together Every Day.

  3. Nemours Children's Health. Speech-Language Therapy.

  4. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Speech & Language Disorders.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Speech Therapy for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders.

  6. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Swallowing and Feeding.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.