icon-arrow-down icon icon-arrow-fill-down icon icon-arrow-next icon icon-arrow-prev icon icon-tag-close icon
In So Many Words ...
By Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell
Most of us are familiar with the approximate ages at which most children exhibit various speech landmarks. If we aren't familiar with them, an intrusive grandparent or possibly competitive neighbor is sure to ask, "Oh, isn't he saying ma-ma and da-da yet?" But what many people do not know is that there is a wide range in the age at which these landmarks appear. One can always find many examples of obviously brilliant people who were quite delayed in talking; Winston Churchill, who helped hold Britain together during World War II with the power of his words, is reported not to have talked until he was 5 years old. In the following tabulation, I am going to mention a few speech landmarks of the early years but also give you an idea of the normal range of variability of its appearance:

LandmarkAverage AgeRange of Ages
Makes sounds
when talked to
3-4 months2-5 months
Says "mama", "dada"8 months4-12 months
Says 1 word12 months9-15 months
Says 4-5 words18 months15-24 months
Puts simple words together20 months12-26 months
Repeats things20 months15-26 months
Uses pronouns like "me"24 months20-30 months
Has a vocabulary
of 40-50 words
24 months20-30 months

Incidentally, girl babies tend to achieve near the lower end of the range and boy babies at the upper end. Speech problems are far more common in boys than in girls.

The above ages and ranges refer only to expressive speech—the external part, the part we hear. And that appears to be the type that most parents worry about; that's what your neighbors and the grandparents needle you about. Actually, most speech and language experts consider receptive language—the part we don't hear—to be even more critical for the development of communication. Early examples of receptive language would be looking at the refrigerator, or simply becoming more active, if mother asks, "Do you want some milk?" or pulling a hand back if someone says, "No." So, even if what you are concerned about is the actual saying of words, set up a few little "tests" to determine if receptive language is proceeding even without actual speech production.

What To Do if your Child is "Beyond the Range"

There are many specific actions parents can take when they have a child whose communication skills are lagging. Here are four general suggestions:
  1. Try not to worry too much. Remember that variability is as much an aspect of speech acquisition as is the average age of reaching the norm. Avoid comparing your baby or toddler with the child of a neighbor or relative. Rebut any snide remark by referring to something positive about your baby. "He might not be saying much just yet, but he is really sensitive to how I feel. If I frown or look sad, he looks at me as though he wishes he could make me feel better." If he is a boy, remind the critic that boys tend to be slower in language development than girls. If he was premature, or if there were any birth complications, mention that these things can affect speech development.

  2. Have his hearing checked immediately. Sometimes even mild ear infections can leave a residual that reduces auditory acuity. During infancy it is difficult to get an accurate reading on minimal deafness, but it can be determined well enough to offer some guidance as to what should be done. Any reduction in the ability to hear with complete accuracy will slow down the acquisition of speech.

  3. Do everything you can to stimulate speech and language. Talk to your child throughout his or her waking day. Label objects by pausing briefly before you say a word and then emphasizing it slightly. "Let's put your (pause) shoes on." "Where is your (pause) corn popper?" And do a lot of what I call maternal announcing: "Mommy's going to do her e-mail now, and I'm going to move your jump chair in by the computer." Your baby won't understand all the words on first hearing, but it will help him associate certain sounds with your actions. And don't let a day go by without reading to him, encouraging him to point to pictures as you say the word and eventually repeating the word after you.

  4. Seek professional help. If you don't notice progress as you follow steps 1-3, you might want to get some professional help. Obviously you need to begin with your baby's physician. If she or he cannot supply you with the name of a qualified speech and language pathologist in your area, you can get names and addresses from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (www.ASHA.org) for any part of the country. With children younger than 3 years, therapy, if suggested, is most likely to consist of a significant elaboration of Step 3 above. This means that, with or without professional intervention, you will be a critical mediator of the experience for your child. Direct therapy with children is more likely to be reserved for older children.