Blog Early signs of speech delays

Early signs of speech delays

by Erika Cardamone
Father holds his son tightly as he wonders if his child has a speech delay or is just a late talker.

Here’s a confession: I have a complete love/hate relationship with mom groups. I LOVE the adult talk where we dish on the latest things our husbands have done in the last month. I LOVE the validation that yeah, parenting is hard. It has its ups, and oh how sweet those ups are…but getting the skinny on sleeping, picky eating, and how to deal with tantrums from other moms is really helpful.

I HATE the inevitable comparisons between the kiddos involved. Even if no one is saying it, they’re thinking it. Including myself…“Oh crap, Johnny is crawling at 7 months?! My kid just sits there.” Or, “Wow, I didn’t hear Sally say a single sound during that entire playdate. Looks like my kid is doing just fine in the speech department.”

Here’s the other thing. I’ve been a speech-language pathologist for over 10 years. So when moms would ask me if they should be worried, I gave my spiel about how all children develop at their own pace (truth!) and how many factors can contribute to those differences, like birth order, gender, multilingual background, etc.

But then I became a mom. And I realized that the worry is real. Like, really real sometimes. And not that I was lying before about the own pace development thing, but what parents want and what we need is just more information.

Information in the form of talking points. Maybe a checklist? Hard evidence that’s backed by professionals and research that we can trust.

So, as your speech-pathologist and fellow worried mom (I’m told the worry never goes away, by the way), here are 5 early signs of speech delays.

1. Get those ears checked.

Hearing is critical to speech and language development, communication, and learning. Children who have even a slight hearing loss are at higher risk for speech and language delays. If your kiddo has had multiple ear infections, then their ability to hear the things you say is compromised.

The parent in me says: “Holy crow! My kid had 2 ear infections before 9 months!! He’s not much of a babbler, so now we’ll be in speech therapy until he’s 12?!”

The professional in me says: It’s ok. Relax. If ear infections are treated in a timely manner, they may not have much affect at all on speech and language development. However, if you’re worried that your child seems a bit quiet, or doesn’t express themselves verbally enough, then it’s a good thing to just rule out.

2. Babbling hasn’t started.

Around 6 months, most babies begin to combine consonants and vowels together to start babbling. Something like “babababa” and “dadadada.” Now don’t sweat it if your babe is 6 months and one week and you haven’t heard any consonants yet. Sometimes babbling emerges a bit later in bilingual babies and boys especially.

The parent in me says: “Eek! My kiddo really doesn’t do the babbling thing much. Maybe a few times a day? And I really have to make him work to do it. Should I be worried?”

The professional in me says: It’s cool. If your baby can imitate you and some of the sounds you make, that’s great! But, if by 8 months you haven’t heard many consonants, it might be time to bring it up with your pediatrician.

3. The charades game is lacking.

Children begin using gestures before words. For instance, waving hello/goodbye, lifting their arms up when they want to be picked up out of the crib or car seat…or when you’ve got your arms full of laundry. You want to see these gestures start to develop before 12 months.

The parent in me says: “Ugh! I never did the baby sign thing, and all my friends’ kids are doing it. We’re doomed forever.”

The professional in me says: Baby signs are great, but they aren’t the only way your baby can communicate before the words come out. Feel free to make up your own signs and see if your baby can imitate other actions you do–like clapping. The big kicker is pointing. If your kiddo isn’t pointing by 14 months, then it could mean a more significant speech and language delay.

4. Combining words.

Most children begin saying their first word by 12-14 months. By 18 months, they’ve upped their expressive vocabulary to about 20 words. Now, those 20 words might be sounds (like animal sounds or car sounds), names, food, verbs, etc. And those “words” might not sound much like the actual word, so we call it an approximation. But hey, they’re consistent, they’re trying… so it counts.

By the time a kiddo hits their second birthday, they should be starting to combine words to make their version of sentences. Some examples: more milk, Mommy shoe, Daddy up, all-done ball. Words that are always said together, like “Thank-you” and “all-done” or “love-you,” don’t actually count as two-word combinations. In the early communicator, these words always occur together, so they just count as one.

5. The vocab count.

This one can be tricky. What counts as an actual word? Like I said, most “words” are better referred to as word approximations. Also, before 2, it’s ok if your child says “moo” every time they see a cow. “Moo” counts as a word. “Beep” for car, counts as a word. You get the idea.

The typical 2-year-old says about 50 words. If your child is bilingual, and says “water” and “agua,” then that is actually 2 different words. If you happen to sit down and count each word your child says and come up with 45, don’t sweat it. But if that number isn’t close to 50, then it might be a sign of a speech delay.

So now what…???

The best thing to do to help your child’s speech and language development is to simply spend more time talking and reading with your child. It’s that easy. Speaking more to your child not only helps her learn to talk faster; it also boosts language-processing speed, so she’ll understand you better too!

But what if you’ve read this blog, and you’ve Googled yourself silly on “early signs of speech delays,” and you’re still worried? What now?

The first thing you should do is consult with your pediatrician. Often, pediatricians can provide a more in-depth speech and language checklist, and it’s always good to bring any observations/concerns up to your doc.

If your pediatrician doesn’t seem too worried, but you still are, you can still be your child’s best advocate (I mean, as parents… it’s our job!). Early intervention services are reserved for children 0-3 years old, and they are available in every state. You don’t need a doctor’s referral. Parents can request a speech and language evaluation at any time before their child turns 3. Just Google “Early Intervention + (Your State or County),” to find contact information.

So the next time you’re at the monthly mom group and you’re comparing/being compared, know that you’ve got a few key talking points about language development in your back pocket.

About the Author

Erika Cardamone

Erika Cardamone is a speech-language pathologist, Mom, and founder of Baby School, a course that teaches parents how to play with their babies. In her free time, she’s searching for umami in her local eateries, building forts and having dance parties with her toddler and husband in their small city apartment. If you want to know what she’s thinking, she’ll tell you at her blog over at

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