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Does your toddler have a speech delay? Here’s what to do

Support is available for toddlers with speech delays

If you notice your toddler isn’t meeting speech milestones, it can be stressful. You may wonder if your child has a developmental difference. Not having expressive language can also be challenging for a child. Because of their speech delay, the toddler can’t tell you what they want, even if they know, so they may communicate by crying, hitting, or biting.

Speech delays existed long before COVID-19, and research on the effects of the pandemic on children’s development is limited. However, one recent study based on babies born during the early pandemic lockdowns suggested these children were more likely to have speech delays.

Remember, not all babies born during the pandemic have delays, and babies born in a post-lockdown world will. A speech delay is not always a sign of a developmental difference, though it can be. The most important takeaway is that support is available for parents and toddlers. Here’s what to know.

Small child sitting on the edge of a bed
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What’s the main cause of speech delays in toddlers?

There’s not one main cause of speech delays in toddlers. Even if there was, each child deserves individualized support. Think about it: Say the most common reason for a pulled muscle was running, but you pulled your hamstring and don’t run. “Take some time off running” and “stretch before running” likely aren’t helpful pieces of advice. The same goes for children with developmental delays. A few reasons for speech delays include autism or hearing issues. Your child may also be a late bloomer who simply needs some extra support.

An angry toddler screaming

When should I worry about a toddler’s speech delay?

If you feel your toddler is falling behind on speech milestones, don’t panic. However, know that you can seek support whenever you feel it is best. Your pediatrician may recommend an evaluation with early intervention. On the flip side, they may call for a “wait and see approach.” For example, if a child doesn’t have at least one word at 12 months, the doctor may suggest holding off an assessment or therapy until 18 months.

As a parent, you can choose whether to take or leave this advice. If you’re concerned or feel the speech delay is causing challenges at home, such as frequent tantrums, you may want to seek assistance.

Toddler in speech school
Gustavo Fring / Pexels

How do you fix a speech delay in a toddler?

Speech therapists will often tell you they don’t “cure” toddlers. They support them, though.

Your pediatrician can give you numbers for your state’s early intervention services, which are publicly funded, free, or reduced-cost programs for any child who meets requirements. You’ll call the early intervention program in your state, and they will set up an evaluation for your toddler (if the child is over 3, you’ll go through the public school system).

You’ll share your concerns, and they’ll set your family up with an evaluator. The person, probably a speech language pathologist, will try to engage your child in a series of activities, like pointing to items in a book. They’ll score your child. If they qualify, they’ll give you more information on setting up services. These services may include twice-weekly, 30-minute therapy sessions. They will reevaluate your child for needs every six months.

Some people find qualifying for early intervention a relief — their child will finally get support. Others may become concerned, and some may have mixed feelings. All these feelings are valid — we want what’s best for our children. Remember that early intervention is a means to make that happen. If you’re struggling, ask if your pediatrician knows of any mental health providers. If your child receives an autism spectrum diagnosis, you may be able to find support groups through your toddler’s early intervention specialist or pediatrician.

If the toddler doesn’t qualify, but you’re concerned, you can look into private speech therapy. Local Facebook groups, your pediatrician, or friends and family may be able to provide referrals. If your child is in nursery school or day care, the faculty and staff may also have recommendations.

Speech delays can be troubling for parents who want to see their children thrive. For children, speech delays are frustrating. They may know they want something from the fridge, but they can’t tell you. Cue the big feelings. A speech delay is a symptom of hearing problems and autism. Not every child with a speech delay will go on to be diagnosed with those issues. Support is available for you and your family. If you’re concerned, there’s no harm in having your toddler evaluated for early intervention services through your state. If your child doesn’t qualify, you may be able to get private speech therapy for them. Your feelings and stress level matter, too. If you need mental health help, speak with a therapist or ask about support groups for parents of children with developmental delays and differences.

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BethAnn Mayer
Beth Ann's work has appeared on healthline.com and parents.com. In her spare time, you can find her running (either marathons…
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