Helping the Speech Delayed Toddler & Preschooler at Home
Once upon a time, we had a non-verbal toddler. It’s hard to tell in young children how their speech will develop prior to the formation of sounds, then words, then sentences. As we came to the realization that our son was not progressing as a normal toddler would, we chose to wait rather than worry.
While we waited, we taught him baby sign language for the everyday words he needed to use but could not form. It took him less than a week to begin using the signs we were teaching. His screaming for what he wanted lessened dramatically at that point and eventually stopped altogether.
About 6 months later we began hearing him form consonants and babbling as he should have done in babyhood. However, there was a lack of consistency in sounds and coherent words. But we continued to wait and see. A few months later, we saw very little progress, so we decided a hearing screen was needed. We walked away from that appointment with the knowledge that our son’s ears were perfect and the reason for the delay was unknown. K was 4 months shy of his 3rd birthday and the doctor suggested we “wait and see.” So we did.
The very next day he said, “Mama.” My heart melted.
I’d like to offer you a bit of a checklist based on the advice we’ve been given and the things we’ve done over the past (almost) 4 years to help our son go from non-verbal to full sentences (as of this month!). It’s not comprehensive by any means, but it does contain the things we’ve found to be most helpful in the process.
1.Make sure your child is nottongue-tied. This was the first thing I checked when Keian was about 4 months old. I knew from my La Leche League experience that tongue-tied babies often have trouble nursing and make clicking noises when they do nurse. K didn’t have any issues with nursing, but I knew he wasn’t babbling as you would expect by that point, so it was a natural thing to check for.
2. Teach sign language, but never use it in place of verbalizing.Baby signs are a great tool, but you must ALWAYS SAY THE WORD with the sign. Using sign language with your child will not delay them even more if used alongside the word they are to be learning. In fact, the repeated use of the sign AND the word together actually encourages the child to take that step into speaking because they are being inundated with the word over and over again and they believe the word and the sign go hand in hand.
3. Speak to your child on your child’s level and enunciate words clearly. Get right in front of your child when you speak to him. For Keian, we even break words down into syllables, enunciating each syllable distinctly and asking him to repeat after us. We also break down sentences into individual words.
4. Ask them to repeat after you, but don’t overdo it. Parroting is an excellent way to get your child to at least try to speak intelligible words, but if you harp on them too much, you will only aggravate them and reap the opposite result.
5. Read and interact with them for 15 minutes every day ALONE. This is difficult in a household our size, but I managed to shut us up in the bedroom and read to him as much as I could. I didn’t usually get 15 minutes in because he thought that was a bit too long, but what time I did get was spent reading and asking questions and helping him to respond (and of course, sharing tons of cuddling!)
6. Be aware of tongue and teeth placement in speech. I can thank my semantics class in college for introducing me to this very important part of speech therapy. You have to know how letters are formed in order to help a speech delayed child. You have to have a basic understanding where the tongue and teeth are in each sound made. It’s not hard to do if you take the time to consider your own speech, but it can be hard to get across to your child. This is where a good speech therapist comes in quite handy. But even if you do choose to take your child to a speech therapist, it is still good for you to know the basics of tongue posture to be able to work with your child at home.
7. Get their ears checked if you don’t see progress (or if you feel there is something more than just a speech delay going on). Keian was almost 3 when we decided we had to take him in for more than just a simple ear exam. There are conditions where a child seems to be hearing you, but what they are really hearing sounds as if they are underwater. This causes many letters to sound garbled to them, which in turn, causes them to be unable to pronounce the sounds correctly. We didn’t want to leave any stones unturned in helping K speak, so we chose to take him in and were pleased to find out his ears were just fine.
8. Praise them for their progress (even if it isn’t much). Children love praise and need to know they are on the right track. If your child manages to eek out one little syllable, praise him mightily! It’s a start! Let them know they’ve done something right.
Keian continues to be about 18 months “behind” in his speech, but as long as he is consistently gaining ground, we are pleased and will continue to work with him here at hom