Not Talking Yet?

By Sandra Y. Lee, Photo by Matthew Rodgers
Child Magazine – April 2003

If you suspect your child has difficulties with speech, speak up. The key to treating language disorders is early intervention.

Perhaps no other milestone, besides walking, generates as much anticipation as a baby’s first words. “Yet when a child isn’t quite on target, well-meaning family, friends, and even the pediatrician may say things like ‘Don’t worry; she’ll talk when she’s ready’ or ‘Uncle Bob didn’t talk until he was 3,’ and parents are often reassured into doing nothing,” says Marilyn Agin, M.D., one of the authors of a new book, The Late Talker: What to Do if Your Child Isn’t Talking Yet. “But, in most cases, you don’t have to — nor should you — take the wait-and-see approach.”

Typically, a late-talking child will catch up with her peers. But a recent study found that over 7% of 5-year-olds didn’t grow out of the problem before starting school, notes Dr. Agin, who is also a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and medical director of the Early Intervention Program in New York City. For these children, the consequences of waiting can be grave. Undetected disorders have been linked to poor reading and academic performance and also emotional problems. “I’ve seen children as young as 3 who are self-conscious about their speech, which can lead to low self-esteem,” says Dr. Agin. Here, she lists some of the warning signs outlined in more detail in her book. You may want to seek help if:

By 9 months, your infant has yet to babble or she babbles with few or no consonant sounds.

By 12 months, your baby looks at something he wants but does not use gestures, like pointing, to show you what he desires.

By 16 months, you still haven’t heard your child’s first words.

By 24 to 30 months, your child has yet to speak in two-word phrases (like “more cookie”).

By 36 months, your child says only single-syllable words with no final consonants (“ca” for cat, “beh” for bed). She also doesn’t ask questions and has frequent tantrums when not understood.

“You know your child best,” says Dr. Agin. “If, deep down, you suspect there’s something wrong with your child and you’re not satisfied with the response from your pediatrician, make an appointment with a speech pathologist or a neurodevelopmental pediatrician.” If your child is under 3, contact your local county-run early intervention program. In most states, evaluations are free; some offer a sliding scale. (To find one near you, visit the website below or call 800-695-0285.) If it turns out that your child’s delay is developmental and he’ll grow out of it, there’s no harm done and you can put your mind at ease, says Dr. Agin. On the other hand, if there is a problem, he’ll benefit tremendously from getting early therapy.