Speech development in a baby or toddler: Is your grandchild doing okay?

Grandmother and cute grandbaby

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Adapted from an article by Debbie Reese, formerly of the National Parent Information Network (NPIN)

As kids grow from infancy to toddlerhood to preschool age, as grandparents, we’re often very aware of what our grandchild “should” be doing at any given age — especially when we think back to how our own kids developed.

One of the milestones that frequently causes parents and grandparents great anxiety is the development of speech. Those initial babblings that sound like words are celebrated, but later, some family members wonder if a child’s ability to talk has been delayed.

Complicating matters is the fact that we might not remember those olden days very accurately. Did your firstborn start talking at 15 months, or was it closer to 18 months? Were they taking in sentences at age 2, or was it later?

Here are some important aspects of speech development to keep in mind.

Before entering into a discussion about milestones of speech development, it is important to note the following:

There is great variation in the onset of expressive language. Children generally understand far more (“receptive speech”) than they are able to articulate themselves (“expressive language”).

Girls seem to develop the ability to communicate earlier than boys.

Language can develop smoothly and continuously, or in jumps and spurts.

Because the development of speech varies, it is important not to compare your child’s language development to other children’s language development.

If you suspect your child or grandchild has a delay in either receptive or expressive language, discuss your concerns with your family physician or pediatrician. The doctor may evaluate the child, or refer you to professionals who specialize in speech and language evaluation.

Cute baby playing with a pink vintage phone toy
Photo by bristekjegor/Freepik
Typical milestones in a child’s speech development

At 7 days old, a newborn can distinguish their mother’s voice from another woman’s voice.

At 2 weeks old, a young baby can distinguish their father’s voice from another man’s voice.

At 3 months old, an infant can make vowel sounds.

At 6 to 8 months old, the baby has added a few consonant sounds to the vowel sounds, and may say “dada” or “mama,” but does not yet attach them to individuals.

At a year old, the little one will attach “mama” or “dada” to the right person. A baby can respond to one-step commands (“Give it to me.”)

At 15 months old, a young child continues to string vowel and consonant sounds together (gibberish) but may imbed real words within the gibberish. They may be able to say as many as ten different words.

At 18 months old, a toddler can say nouns (ball, cup), names of special people, and a few action words/phrases. The child adds gestures to their speech, and may be able to follow a two-step command (“Go to the bedroom and get the toy.”)

At 2 years old, the child can combine words, forming simple sentences like “Daddy go.”

At 3 years old, the child can use sentences two to four words long, follow simple instructions, and often repeat words he/she overhears in conversations.

At 4 years old, the child can understand most sentences, understands physical relationships (on, in, under), uses sentences that are four or five words long, can say their name, age, and sex, and uses pronouns. Strangers can understand the child’s spoken language.

How parents can help

Parents and grandparents can all help their young family members develop language skills by doing any or all of the following:

Read books and sing songs to children on a daily basis, beginning in infancy.

Introduce new vocabulary in a meaningful context, e.g., name specific foods at dinnertime.

Speak directly to young children, and give them time to respond.

Avoid finishing sentences for kids, and allow them time to think and speak.

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