Helping the Speech Delayed Toddler & Preschooler at Home

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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 not tongue-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
e.
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Don’t forget I’m also at The Homeschool Classroom today with my post

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31 thoughts on “Helping the Speech Delayed Toddler & Preschooler at Home

  1. Thanks for sharing this- I have a 4 1/2 yr. old son with a speech delay for no reason and have always had the same attitude expressed in your closing. I’ve taken flack for that position so it’s nice to hear it expressed from others in the same boat :)

  2. It is really good to know that other folks are going through a mysterious speech delay with a child. Our Kristin turned 3 a month ago and is about a year behind in her speech development. She has several speech issues (frontal lisp, deletion of sounds, and other things I don’t know the terms for :-) She uses gibberish frequently.

    I love all of your points, however, I think that it is also okay to GET HELP if there is a true delay. I am not speech pathologist and I did not realize all the intricate parts of speech development. At age 2.5 year, we had Kristin evaluated with the CDSA (Children’s Developmental Services Agencies) in NC and she qualified for a the program which allowed a private speech pathologist to come to our home once a week. THIS has been GREAT in aiding me with the tools to help Kristin. And because we have 4 children at home, we qualified for the services to be free as they work on a sliding fee scale. Free speech therapy at home! What a blessing!

    Since Kristin turned 3, she aged out of the baby/toddler program, and now we receive weekly speech therapy at the local school. Her speech therapist is VERY helpful and sweet. The private session is just 30 minutes a week, and I participate so that I can work on certain things during the week. (This is also free).

    I just wanted to let you and others know it’s okay to get help… it can give you the tools to work at home with your little ones. If it weren’t for the sweet speech therapists, I would really be stressed out, not knowing what to do.

    Oh, and FYI… my father in law had speech therapy for 7 years when he was younger, and now he is a brilliant engineer with a PhD and works with big wigs on the whole “green energy” movement out there. So, speech delay has nothing to do with intelligence :-)

  3. I can so relate…when my soon to be 13 yr old son was a toddler we incountered the same thing. His speach was not were it sould be and we tought him sign laungage.
    Our doctor at the time would not test his hearing…he said he could hear fine.
    At about age 5 or so we did have is hearing checked because though his speech was well improved by that age he was not anwsering us when we called….well I quess he would hear his name,turn to look us. We would ask him to do something and it seemed as though he was ignoring us. Going back to what we was doing.
    Long story short….
    Jacob had water on his ears(some times with pain but mostly no pain)and about 9 months out of 12 he had only 80% hearing. His hearing was muffled. Most of the time the water was present in the ears he had no infection.
    Treatment was tubes in the ears
    then we had to do a second set of tubes at age 8 and have his adnoids taken out. He is fine now!

    Blessings to you,
    Georgiann

  4. Interesting. I have a very bright 8 year old who doesn’t enunciate “s” very well. I called our local elementary school thinking I would enroll her in speech therapy. I thought our taxes should cover something. But they literally wanted us to sign our lives away. I was intimidated by all the paper work and “getting on their radar” so we didn’t. I have a friend who showed me some exercises and when I think about it we do them. Hopefully she will grow out of it.

  5. Thanks for another great post!

    Our little one, K, is about 18 months delayed in her speech. She also has microtia (“small ear”) on the left side and minor hearing loss in that ear. She currently receives weekly speech therapy in our home through a state program, and we love it! I’m anxious to hear my little one speak in full sentences — she is so intelligent and creative — but right now I’m working on being patient. :-)

    Many blessings to your little guy as he works through his circumstances.

    –Sleepy Knitter

  6. Beth,
    Absolutely! I didn’t want to come across as believing that speech therapy is bad…because it isn’t. But I did want parents to know that they aren’t totally helpless and there are so many things they can do to help out their child right in the home. Even if you do seek help, knowing these things is important.
    Blessings,
    Amy

  7. Thank you for posting that helpful info. I also have children with speech issues.

    For us it has been a combination of working at home plus outside therapy that has helped her show the greatest improvement. (But she had severe delays and speech apraxia… so her situation was quite extreme.)

  8. My nine year old had the same problems. No real probem really… she just did not have anything to say … until now. ;) She talks all the time and too much some times. :) She even spent some time in speech therapy… they thought she was mute because the lady snapped at her the first time she met her and she spent a year not speaking to the therapist… she just didn’t have anything to say to her…. smart girl! Love the post!!

    I am blessed… if you come back here I wanted to say this. The “s” is a seven year old sound. Typically, it is fully developed at or around that age. I can say from my PERSONAL experience that I had an “s” issue. I had therapy in K, 1st, 3rd (so up until age 8)… I still had it after the therapy. I outgrew it and just had to focus a little on proper tongue placement. This kind of took care of itself when I became a pre-teen and I started to be aware of sounding “funny”. I then concentrated my efforts of correcting it. ;)

  9. Thank you for sharing!A friend recommended your blog.This is almost our story for our little Birch who is 2 and a half. He does have some hearing loss but is still very behind in his verbal sounds. We use lots of sign & he signs over 60 signs, it is so amazing watching him! He is baby number 12 so this has been an experience! Godbless you & your family & your sweet boy!

  10. Hi! I have a non-verbal three-year-old. We are still dealing with a lot of screaming. Things are very hard.

    But I would add to your list that speech therapists can’t FIX problems. They can train you to help your child, but that’s no quick fix if your child is autistic. He bangs his head and has other problems as well.. I have to admit some jealousy that you have heard “Mama” and I have not. :)

    We are using PECs and trying to show choices, modeling words, etc. Woodjie is also in a special preschool. We are just doing the best we can.

  11. Mrs. C…You are right. Sometimes the problems are beyond everyone. It broke my heart to hear you say you are jealous of “mama”…I imagine that is heart-wrenching.
    Blessings,
    Amy

  12. I linked to your article from the Homeschool Classroom. Duncan, my now 8 year old, was speech delayed. When he was almost 3 and still barely talking, we too took him to have his hearing evaluated on the recommendation of our pediatrician. Interestingly, the advice we were given was to put him in an all day special needs preschool. After again talking with our pediatrician and being clear that this option was really not acceptable to us, he agreed that it would be OK to wait and see but our doctor encouraged us to work with him at home. One of the best suggestions I received was to stop letting his brother and sister talk for him. My oldest daughter was (and still is) a “chatty-Cathy” and I quickly realized that she often talked for him. Duncan would come in the kitchen and want milk and before he could verbalize his request, Amber would speak up and say “Duncan wants milk. Yes, that’s what he wants. Please get Duncan milk Mommy.” Duncan and his older brother have always been unbelievably close and Duncan would communicate with him in his own way. So, between his two older siblings, I realized…he didn’t NEED to talk much! Blessedly, all speaking issues were resolved over time and at 8, you would never know there were ever any speaking delays.
    Samantha

  13. My 3 year old has also been behind, due to having “glue ear” (resolved with grommets).
    Modeling speech and giving lots of opportunities for him to talk is really helping him to catch up.
    For example, singing songs and pausing for him to fill in the gap.

  14. I am so moved with this post. I sit here near tears and am so glad to know that there is yet another parent with a son who has delayed speech. The first time we had Jonathan evaluated was sometime between 2 and 2 1/2. The doctor was concerned. J was at level or advanced in every area except speech. I believe his delayment was 6 months at that time. We had his hearing tested and it was perfect. Last year (4th birthday) he speech was still delayed…he talkes all the time but not completely clearly. We took him to another hearing specialist (the first was in TN this time in WA) and his hearing was perfect. The doctor here started asking questions along the line of Aspbergers (sp) and ADHD. She said that a speech pathologist could better diagnose him with a disorder. We decided to not see a specialist but really focus on helping here him at home. Concentrate on articulation, enunciation, having him repeat us, etc. His speech has improved over the course of the year. We have people tell us continually that they are understanding him so much better. He just celebrated his 5th birthday and at his general check up the doctor began insisting that he needs to see a specialist because by the age of 5 everything should be very clear to anyone who is around him. Being his mother, I get confused at times. There is improvement. I know there is. I don’t want to get scooped up and follow the pack and go with the mainstream and yet I don’t want to hold him back either. My husband and I talk continually of what to do. Many of the people who are in the “homeschool” world or mentality (I’m sorry I don’t have better words) tell me to wait and keep working with him. That’s it’s common. When I’m at the doctors though or around other people I feel like I’m looked at as a bad mother for not having him at a specialist. If he wasn’t improving I’d run to one. He is though. The link you posted about tongue-tied is enlightening and encouraging to me. When I run down the list, J is at age for everything but ‘n’ and that is comming along. He also has many other sounds down that are older or more difficult according to the list. He still has problems with words such as “cereal” which some out “sarsal” but if he’s made to slow down it comes out much more clearly. Perfect? No. Clearer? Yes.
    Your post is so encouraging and gives me the umph to stick with it and to continue working with him here at home as long as there is improvement.
    Thank you.

  15. I just came across your blog and read this post. I had a moment of affirmation from the Lord in reading. My son too had a speech delay. I can empathize with Tami. The doctors sent us in all directions insisting that he needed medication and therapy and this and that. My husband and I turn to God for this. We prayed that he would guide us on what to do for our son and that he would move the mountain that was preventing our son from speaking. I would go back and forth and feel supported around other homeschooling mom or others who trusted in the promises of the Lord. But the doctors, man oh man are they insistent. I had the courage to tell our dr that we wanted to let him develop at his own pace and of course with us helping him. He is four and a half now and well on his way to talking, expressing himself, using sentences, telling stories on so much more. This is the first time that I have come across others experiencing the same thing and going about it in their way and not the way of the doctors or what is typical. Wow, what an encouragement! We as parents know our children best and know what will work best for them and when we make that decision we can stand confident that we did what is best for them. Many blessings to all!

  16. Thank you for posting this! I’m going to be a new homeschooling Mom this fall and my 5 yr old needs speech therapy. I went through it with my older 2 sons (public school speech therapist), so I’m not over paranoid. The link you provided was great! I’m so glad I found your amazing blog!!

  17. This is a disheartening read. Kids want to communicate – the ability for them to communicate is there; the help is available.

    Get it.

  18. Thanks for writing this. Our daughter will turn 2 in a couple of months and has never said mama, and it breaks my heart. She has said sentences before, but nothing with any consistency. She doesn’t point to what she wants, doesn’t even try to say milk. She just cries. Its so frustrating and heart breaking.

  19. Mu daughter is 38 months old now and she can’t answer any question that i ask about past or future …. Can u help me and tell me why … I wish that i can do any talk w my daughter…. Maybe i let her watch so many hours a baby dvd’s especially in her firstt 2 years, and bcause i had second child and i had health problems i cauldn’t read any story to her ?!!! She i talking now so nice she lnows all abc’s and cout to twenty all animal’s and sounds all name if the things around but she havent any imagination or idonno what

  20. My baby is 2 years old and hey say about 20 words. All together but he hums and points at what he whan’ts. I tried to show him but he does not try. What can I do please help me I don’ t know what to do. I need some tips.

    • Here’s what we did…every time our son asked in his own way, I repeated it back to him with the correct sign. So, he was hearing the words and seeing the sign. Pretty soon, he was signing, and later came the words. :)

  21. Thank you very much for your posting. I have a son that will be turning 4 years old in May. He can speak about 20 words. And say short sentences , 2 to 3 words. The rest he babbles. He’s been getting speech therapy for the past 3 months and I read to him everyday and practice our ABC’s and numbers. I’m seeing the progress with time but still see that he has a long road ahead of him. I’m just hoping that he catches up quickly to the rest of he’s classmates. Sometimes I feel like he’s the only child delayed in speech. It’s good hear the related stories. Good luck to you and your child.

  22. My sons 26 months and had a lot of ear infections resulting in tubes at 16 months and still wasn’t speaking at 19 months his grandma was an early head start educator now a parents as teachers home visitor suggested we call infant toddler services to at least have him tested. He was considered severely speach delayed. Waiting and seeing can lead to more than a speach delay it can cause learning problems all the way through school. Its free to have infant toddler services come to test your little one. He also has and still uses signs the speach theropist that Dee’s him once a week says encourage words but the signs are his communication and still accept them as that or it can cause dither delay. I am very thankful we’ve had the foresight to get our son early help. Those programs are there because early intervention is so important.

  23. Your comments were very encouraging for someone who is going through similar circumstances. My son just turned 3 and has been having back to back ear infections and so I had tubes placed in his ears. It has been a week and already I see a small change in him, he is wetting his diaper less and going to the potty more. He was a bad tantrum thrower and it seems that he is now trying to communicate moreso.

  24. Hi, this article sounds right on with my now 4 1/2 year old son. I worry constantly about his progress and future prognosis. Ideally I’d love to see him “on track” by kindergarten, but maybe more likely during elementary school at some point. I’d love to hear how your son is doing now, seeing that this article is 4 years old. I hope you’ve crossed some hurdles and can share some hope with us. Thank you!

  25. My twin girls are 2.5 yrs old will be 3 in November. They are speaking at a 13 months old level. We have a speech development person coming to our home. When she isn’t canceling appointments the girls seem to do good but not great with her here. I’m wanting to try and develop a schedule throughout the day everyday to try and do this better on my own since we do not see this lady but once a week and that’s IF she shows up. You seem to be doing great with your son and I was just wondering if you had a suggestion I’m hoping to build it like a regular homeschool day, that way when it comes time to start their schooling and I do hope to do it at home as well, I can just replace what we are doing now with regular based work. Just wondering if you could steer me in the right direction or just a few ideas.

    Thanks,

    Shanna

    • Hi Shanna! It’s a great idea to make it a regular thing in your day, so that you are more likely to do it. There are tons of great resources out there. And just as an FYI, there are also online speech therapists that won’t be canceling your appointments. ;)

  26. Thank you so much for putting your experience out there! I have a two year old who isn’t talking that much. I have taken him in to a developmental specialist and having been told my son has Austim and because he has that hi speech is delayed. I don’t feel comfortable with this diagnoses. I feel two years is too early to tell that. I am teaching him baby sign and he’s picking it up beautifully. I will try to be patient and try to teach him the best I can! Thank you very much for putting your advice out there!!