PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Speech Development in Children

Posted on Dec 30, 2014




A child’s first word, whether it’s “mama,” “dada” or the family pet’s name, is one of parents’ most eagerly anticipated milestones. One word usually leads to many others, and soon parents are enjoying the creative ways their little ones are communicating. But what if a child experiences speech issues, such as delayed speech or stuttering?

“Keep in mind that there’s a wide range in what is considered normal speech development,” says Debra Barra-Stevens, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

In this blog post, Dr. Barra-Stevens answers common questions from parents about speech development.

What are the typical milestones in a child’s speech?

Much as each child has a unique personality, each child also has his or her own pace for learning to speak. Generally, some of the stages in a child’s speech development are:

  • 6 to 12 months: Your baby will probably be babbling and showing signs of wanting to communicate with you by making many different sounds.
  • 12 months: Among the babble, your child’s first simple words, such as “mama” and “dada” will start to emerge.
  • 18 months: Your little one will likely be able to say several stand-alone words. She will be able to understand a lot more than she can say.
  • 2 years: Your toddler will be putting two to four words together to talk to you in short sentences, along with a lot of repetition of words and phrases. He may be bubbling over with enthusiasm as he explores and learns this new way to communicate.

Many kids are late bloomers but still end up with excellent speaking and communication skills. Non-verbal communication skills that indicate your child is developing in a normal, healthy way include pointing, gesturing and making eye contact with you and others. He will also respond to you and to what’s going on in the outside world, for example by pointing at a train going by or a plane in the sky.

What can I do to encourage my child to learn to talk well?

There are several ways you can encourage your child to talk and enjoy experimenting with speech:

  • Speak to your child often. When you are out and about, point out things like trees and plants at the park or different fruits and vegetables at the grocery store.
  • Be patient. Don’t rush in with the right word before your little one has a chance to try and verbalize something.
  • Avoid trying to make your child speak when he or she doesn’t want to talk.
  • Help him improve his speech. Ask questions like: “I know you want that. What is it?”
  • Read to your child regularly, using intonation and adding gestures, so she hears a wide range of ways words and speech are used. Singing and saying rhymes are also good stimulation.

My 2-year-old son hardly says a word. What should I do?

If you are concerned that your son’s speech is delayed, talk to his doctor. If there is a speech delay, it’s important to determine the reason for this so your child can get the help he needs to correct any underlying issue such as a hearing problem. This will also help reduce any frustration your child may be experiencing because he can’t communicate verbally. Once your child’s doctor has determined that your son might be delayed in his speech, your child will be referred to an audiologist and a speech therapist who specialize in working with children. Your child will receive evaluations from these specialists, and if there is an issue, a treatment plan to help him.

My 3-year-old stutters sometimes when she is trying to tell me something. Should I worry?

Stuttering in young children under 4 is often part of normal speech development and is nothing to worry about. Your child’s brain is developing so quickly and absorbing so many new words, phrases and expressions, her mouth and speech just can’t keep up. Remember to be patient and let your daughter say what she wants to say, even if it takes her a little longer. Don’t finish her words or sentences for her. If her stuttering continues for longer than six months, gets worse or is frustrating her, speak to your child’s doctor. If there is an issue, your doctor will refer your child to a speech therapist for help.

My 3-year-old doesn’t seem to be able to pronounce some words correctly. Is this normal?

It’s quite typical for a young child who is learning to speak and form certain sounds to have difficulty with pronunciation. Typical difficulties might include saying certain letters (such as “r” pronounced as “w,” as in “wabbit” rather than “rabbit”) or a particular combination of sounds. Your child may leave out some of the letters in the middle of a word or simplify longer words to an easily managed one-syllable word. Keep modeling good speech and the correct pronunciation while your child hones his verbal prowess. If your child is still experiencing difficulties pronouncing certain sounds past the age of 5 or showing frustration with his speech, talk to your child’s doctor.

Barra-StevensDebra Barra-Stevens, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.