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My child is advanced—except in speech
Q: My 21-month-old, doesn’t talk. Until a month ago Molly said “Dadada” for almost everything. Then she started babbling. She says “Mamama” when she’s overtired or needs milk. She’s frustrated when she can’t tell me what she wants. As far as everything else, she’s verging on advanced. She can put on a shirt, wash her face, feed herself, use the stairs and share with other children. We spend lots of time talking with her. My husband and I play “What’s this?” and point out emotions to help her express them more effectively.
A: You and your husband sound like wonderful parents, Danielle, and I feel confident that you will get Molly through her pre-language frustration. Because Molly is so advanced in some areas, I do not get the feeling that the lag in language development indicates a general developmental delay. So I think that the thing to do is try to find an explanation for this discrepancy and do whatever you can to correct it.

The place to begin is with your pediatrician or family practitioner. Has she had any ear infections that might have left a slight hearing deficit? If the answer is “No” and her hearing is within the normal range, you have to look elsewhere. In addition to a formal assessment, try simple procedures at home that can give you a good idea of her hearing status. Stand behind her so that she can’t see you and softly call her name. Drop a spoon or fork on the floor where it will make a loud noise and see if she startles. If so, you know the source of the difficulty probably lies somewhere other than in her ears.

The period between 18 and 36 months is usually a time of exploding language acquisition, and Molly may begin to pick up any day. If this doesn’t happen, I would find a clinic in your region, either a general developmental clinic or a speech and language clinic, and have her evaluated. I should comment that this recommendation runs counter to what I usually suggest to parents, which is to wait until the child is 3 years old. However, some professional help at this stage might be a good thing.

Whatever you do, make certain that you don’t make her so anxious about talking that you inadvertently interfere with whatever progress she might be making. Sometimes, if too much tension flows into the language environment during the time a child is learning to talk, it slows down the very process you are trying to speed up. So be careful to keep the stress level low.

In the meantime, instead of constantly playing “What’s this?” I would play “Show me.” That is, use simple books with pictures that can be labeled with one or two words. But you’re going to be doing the labeling. After reading a book (or before or during), go through it and request, “Show me the doggy” and let her point. Later you can make it more complicated and request, “Show me the big (brown, furry, tiny) doggy.” Supply the names of objects and events (as you are doing now with emotions) as you go about your daily routine by stressing certain words. “Are you ready for your lunch?” “Go find your other shoe.” And look directly at her when you speak to her. If necessary, gently take her head and turn her face to you as you talk.

In the meantime, don’t forget to compliment her on what she does well, such as sharing with others.