Late Talker or Language Delay?


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Ever felt worried that your child is not yet calling "mama" or "papa" at the age of 1 years old? 2 years old? 3 years old? Had a gut feeling that something is amissed but was told by others to "wait and see"?

While children do progress at different rates, knowing their speech and language milestones will help guide what we generally expect of your child's development and if you should really be feeling worried.

Important Language Development Milestones

- 18 months: 50 words (usually single words e.g. mama, milk, up)

- 24 months: 250 words (combines 2 words e.g. drink milk, mama where, see bird)

- 36 months: 900 words (speaks short sentences, e.g. I want toy, Where is mummy? Daddy go work)

Warning Signs

- Child is difficult to engage and enjoys being alone

- Child does not repeat any words

- Child is not interested in play

Click here for more details on the developmental milestones and warning signs.

Late Talker

A late talker is usually a toddler between 18-30 months who is able to understand what you say well and is otherwise progressing well in the different developmental domains (e.g. motor skills, social interaction, play skills). Please note that children with any neurological or developmental delay (e.g. Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome) woud not fall under this category. The child is however having very limited spoken vocabulary and is saying little or no words. They are currently communicating with you in other ways, e.g. gestures, pointing, pulling you to desired item or crying. Many parents report that their child tends to feel frustrated and have tantrums when they are unable to know what he/she wants.

Research has indicated that about 70-80% of late talkers as described above will outgrow the initial language delay and eventually catch up with their peers. At the same time, this suggests that 20-30% do not and will go on to be diagnosed with a speech and language delay. It is challenging for anyone to predict which group your child will fall under. As such a "wait and see" approach might be detrimental for a child that would otherwise benefit from early intervention.

What Can I Do to Help My Child?

If you are still feeling anxious, here are some things that you can do in the meantime especially if you are not sure that you are ready to seek professional help immediately:

1. Go through the speech and language developmental milestones in more details.

2. Take note for any warning signs for referral.

3. With points (1) and (2) in mind, start to observe other children of similar age.

4. If your child is attending childcare, speak to his/her teacher who is well-versed in speech and language developmental milestones or have previous experiences with children with these delays.

5. If you know someone with who has a child with speech and language delay, please do check in with them. If not, try asking around and there is a high chance that you would know someone that knows another that might be able to help.

Still worried?

It is advisable to seek advice from a certified Speech and Language Therapist. Please ensure that he/she is registered with the Allied Health Professions Council (AHPC) in Singapore. This is a relatively new initiative under the Ministry of Health which governs and regulates the professional conduct and ethics of registered allied health professionals.

Your Speech and Language Therapist would be the best person to address any concerns you may have and discuss the next steps. Remember that early intervention is the best predictor of positive outcomes. Parents never regret acting too early but tend to reproach themselves for doing something too late.

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