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Speech Development in Babies and Toddlers

Sabrina H.
SABRINA H.
Speech-Language Pathologist
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Join Speech-Language Pathologist, Sabrina Horvath, for a Q&A about speech and language development in infants, toddlers and young children. Sabrina is here to talk about infant understanding of language, first words, typical speech development and more.

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SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
"Mama" and "Dada"
SARAH, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD

My son is almost 14 months old. Though he makes lots of sounds (include "ma" and "da") and knows/says the words "dog," "blue," "green," and "yellow," he does not yet say "Mama" or "Dada" with meaning, even though we use the words all the time (FAR more often than "dog"). If we say "where's Dada?" Or "where's Mama?" He will sometimes look to the right person, but not reliably so. Is this something to be concerned about?

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Sarah,
Your son sounds like he is right on track for his language development! At 14 months of age, he should be making a lot of sounds, and he should be at the very beginning stages of learning the meanings of words.
Learning the meaning of a new word is actually a difficult task; we study this very challenge at my lab! It is normal for young children to over- or under- extend word meanings early on. For example, some children call all adult males “dada” (over-extension), or only call their dog “da”, but not any others (under-extension). As children are still figuring out the meanings of words, they sometimes make mistakes in comprehension (e.g., “Where’s dada?”) or production (e.g., saying “dada” without the right meaning). Parent labels often stand out, because we want children to know them early on! However, many children do not learn these words first.
I of course recommend that you keep an eye on your son’s language development, but he sounds like he is on a typical trajectory from what you have described. Just keep talking with him, and he will figure out his words with time!
Thanks for your question!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Stuttering
MEGHAN, PARENT OF 6 YEAR OLD

My 3 year old has started to have some trouble getting words out. Not quite stuttering but delayed speech, I guess. It seems like his mind is working faster than his mouth and also that he doesn't have the vocabulary to say exactly what he means. Overall he's very verbal and has a large vocabulary for his age. It doesn't happen all the time either. I'm more concerned because my husband has had this problem his whole life. He often can't say his name when someone introduces themselves. I wonder if this problem can be hereditary, or if it's even a problem at all, or normal at this point in time?

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Meghan,
Thanks for your question! I hope I can provide some good background information for you.
Many children go through periods of “disfluency” during development. It often happens exactly as you have described: children are on the cusp of making some major language developments, and/or the ideas are forming more quickly than the sentence is. We take for granted how easy it is to say what we mean to say. Toddlers, though, are often limited by both vocabulary and sentence complexity. When complexity of the idea exceeds their capacities for language (or the speed at which they can put the language together), disfluent speech happens. Children may have multiple periods of disfluency throughout development – they briefly struggle, and then the problem goes away.
Having said this, it is also true that lifelong problems with disfluency (most commonly stuttering) do have a hereditary component. If your husband has a problem with stuttering, your son is unfortunately at greater risk for having a lifelong problem rather than a transient one. This is not a certainty, though! Just because your husband has problems does not mean that your son will; it only means that, statistically, the odds are greater than if there were no relatives with stuttering problems.
So, is your son going through a natural developmental process, or is there something more going on? I wish that I could give you a clear metric for you to use at home; unfortunately, the distinctions are subtle, and really require professional expertise. For a more definite answer, I would recommend having a speech pathologist evaluate your son’s speech. The speech pathologist would look at the frequency with which disfluent speech happens, as well as the characteristics of your son’s speech, to determine whether therapy is necessary at this stage.
As I said, disfluent speech is a natural part of the language learning process for many children. This is something he may well grow out of on his own. You do want to keep an eye on this, though, in case anything changes. If there is a sudden increase in the frequency with which your son has problems, of if he becomes aware of and frustrated with his disfluency, it’s time to schedule an evaluation.
Best of luck!

MEGHAN

Thank you so much! This was SO much better than what I learned from Dr. Google!!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Reading and second baby
FRANCESCA, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD, 3 YEAR OLD

We don’t get a chance to read as much to our new baby who is now 4.5 months compared to our first child. Will this hinder her picking up language as quickly?

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Francesca,
Reading is a wonderful way to teach children language, but having fewer opportunities to read with your 4.5 month old will certainly not hinder her language acquisition!
At this age, your infant is mostly working on figuring out the sounds of her language. She is taking in the language that she is hearing and figuring out which sounds are the same and which are different. For example, how you say the “s” in “seat” and the “s” in “sad” often have very slight acoustic differences, but your child has to learn that they are really the same sound in English. She is also beginning to learn the rules of how those sounds can be combined. For example, although “m”, “b” and “g” are all sounds in English, we can’t merge them all together to form a word: “mbg.”
Figuring out sounds and sound rules is something children do from just listening. Your child will even listen to language that is not directed at her and try to learn from it! This is not something that she needs direct teaching in, and this is not something that she can only learn from books.
Reading is wonderful because it teaches vocabulary that children may otherwise not hear, and it exposes children to more complex grammar than we typically use in conversation. Your 4.5 month old is not yet at this stage of development, so don’t feel that she is “missing out” because you are reading less with her. That is not to say that you shouldn’t read with her yet (you absolutely can!); it only means that you haven’t somehow “hindered her picking up language” because you haven’t spent as much time together reading as you would have liked.
I’m sure you will figure out how to create more reading opportunities as your new baby gets older; she may even enjoy reading with her older sibling! In the meantime, though, your baby is still learning language as she should!

FRANCESCA

Thanks so much. She hears my 2 year old talk all day long, although he is still developing his pronunciation of words and stringing together longer sentences. I also feel like we are reading less to my son now with the lack of time. I'm sure we will get to increasing it back up again.. They love books. Thanks!!

SABRINA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Bilingual
ÁNGEL, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD

Hi. Any tips on raising a kid bilingual? If you speak two languages to a baby will their language development be delayed?

Sabrina
SABRINA

Hi Angel!
Parents who plan to raise their child as bilingual often wonder whether their child will be delayed as a result; you are not alone in this question! It is worth remembering that the task of figuring out two (or more) languages is more complex than just figuring out one, so bilingual children may be a little behind their monolingual counterparts in hitting some early language milestones. However, there are two important things to remember:
1) Although bilingual children may look a little slower early on, they are not delayed! They simply have more work to do.
2) Children are absolutely capable of learning multiple languages at once. In many places around the world, bilingualism, rather than monolingualism, is the norm!
The challenge in raising your child bilingual is that you are doing so in a society that is (largely) monolingual. It is very easy for children to end up as monolingual simply because they hear English far more than their second language. The best thing to do is to make sure that you identify times in your child’s day (e.g., dinner time, playtime) where he or she is only hearing the second language. This is as much for you as for the child – it ensures that you are consistent in exposing your child to the other language. I also recommend watching how much “media” (e.g., books, TV, radio) your child consumes in English versus in the second language. This is one of the sneaky ways in which English can become a much bigger part of a household than parents intend. Again, your child will hear English in his or her community regularly; promoting the second language at home is key in successfully raising a bilingual.
Best of luck!

Welcome!
TINYHOOD, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD

Welcome, Sabrina! Wondering how reading books to your baby contributes to their speech development? Curious what it means when your toddler says words that don’t make sense? Sabrina is here today to answer all of your questions about speech development in babies and toddlers.