When your toddler doesn't talk
You're expecting to hear your little one say 'mama' any day now. But when it doesn't happen, should you be worried?
Waiting for your toddler's first words as other children are happily chanting songs and ABCs is gut-wrenching. Whatever the problem is, coping with a child who has trouble speaking creates constant worry. Language delay is on the rise, but many parents don't know what to do and the problem can become a stumbling block to development.
Speech difficulties are the most common developmental disorder in children and affect 14-20% of pre-schoolers. 'About one child in 10 has a language problem due to a genetic or physical impairment, such as acquired hearing loss,' says Janet Cooper, who's been a speech and language therapist for 18 years. 'Those children will always need help and there's nothing parents can do to influence that. Other children may be affected by environmental factors and there's plenty parents can do to help. Even before birth, mums can start by talking to their bump!'
Experts are concerned about the increase in the number of children with language delay. Liz Attenborough, manager of the National Literacy Trust's Talk to Your Baby campaign, says, 'Three-quarters of school and nursery heads think language competency in 3 year olds has declined over the last five years.'
Liz thinks it's due to a combination of environmental factors. 'Everything has an impact, from our busy lives to the amount of unsupervised TV children watch,' she says. 'And modern buggies face the "wrong" way. In the past, rear-facing prams provided an opportunity for eye contact and conversation.'
Some parents may be unwittingly contributing to the problem, believes Juliet Woodlock, who's been a health visitor for 25 years. 'One mistake a lot of mums and dads make is to pre-empt their child's need. It could be a side-effect of our very busy lifestyles - it's certainly easier than waiting for a toddler to decide if he wants milk or juice to drink.'
So what is normal?
Many parents notice that something's not quite right when first words don't come around the benchmark of 12-18 months. It's worth noting that boys are three times more likely than girls to have language delay. Around 60 per cent of language delay cases in children under the age of 3 resolve themselves with no intervention - these children simply take longer to get going. The remaining 40 per cent may be suffering from a range of physical and developmental problems, including acquired hearing loss (as a result of infection, disease or injury), a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, autism, childhood apraxia of speech (a nervous system disorder) or some form of neural impairment.
When a problem does turn out to be physical or genetic, early detection and intervention is crucial so that your child can avoid further social and emotional problems.
Numerous tests can be done to find out the severity of the situation, as well as the underlying cause. Your child should be treated individually, helping him to find strategies for understanding language and communicating. Whether or not his problem can be treated successfully depends on the severity and nature of the condition.
Where to get help
The first port of call is your health visitor. If your child is not yet 2, don't be surprised if you're told that language delay is normal. However, if you're still worried, your health visitor should take you seriously.
Mum's the word
The key to solving language delay lies with parents. The more we can encourage and nurture our children's communication skills, the more they will develop.
The Talk To Your Baby campaign encourages parents to spend as much time as possible talking, reading and singing with their child. As well as building your little one's confidence, you'll help him to feel valued, which will build on the bond between you. Whether or not your child is experiencing a language delay, there's no such thing as 'too much' social interaction between a parent and a child under 5.
Janet Cooper says parents' input is paramount. 'Many of them don't realise the power they have. They have all the skills - they just need the confidence to use them.'