How to Know if Your Child Has a Speech Delay

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As a parent, it’s reasonable to start worrying about your young toddler whenever anything that isn’t completely normal starts to happen.

One such thing is if your child starts to show signs of having a speech delay.

A speech delay is a condition in which your child is not saying words or starting to form sentences at the ages during which they typically would.

Naturally, you’ll be wondering how you can fix it for them. The first thing you’ll need to figure out, though, is how to know if your child has a speech delay.

While difficult to diagnose, especially for a parent monitoring their child at home, there are some key things you can look out for to determine if it’s time to set up an appointment with their pediatrician and get an expert’s opinion.

Let’s learn about what a speech delay is, what to look for to know if your child has it, what causes speech delays, and what you can do for them.

What Is Considered a Late Talker?

A late talker is a child who isn’t reaching typical speaking milestones that kids in their age group typically meet.

These milestones are usually the number of words known and the child’s ability to begin forming sentences at certain ages.

These early-lifetime milestones are usually used to monitor your child from 18 to 36 months of age.

That is when the child’s brain undergoes some of the most important developments necessary to learn words and be able to use them in sentences themselves.

Thus, if your child is missing these milestones, it could be an indicator of a speech delay.

The following are three of the main guidelines used for monitoring toddlers to see if they are showing any signs of having a speech delay:

First Milestone

A child who is 18 months old should know right around 20 words.

These will likely be some of the most basic one or two-syllable words that they hear commonly throughout the day such as “mommy”, “daddy”, and “food”.

More than likely, your young toddler won’t be able to form any sort of coherent sentences at this age.

Second Milestone

As they head towards their second birthdays, your toddler should be learning more and more words.

By this stage, it is common for a child to know around 50 to 100 words.

Again, these will be some of the more basic words, but more and more as time goes on.

At this stage, they may even start to say some very simple two-word sentences.

Third Milestone

By the time they turn three, your child should know close to 1,000 words.

Even if they don’t say 1,000 words, they will know quite a few words stashed away somewhere in their minds.

At age three, they should start trying to say more difficult sentences of about three or four words in length.

Things to Keep in Mind

The key here is not to take these guidelines to be exactly what your child should be able to do at these exact ages.

Maybe your toddler can say more or fewer words than this when they are a little younger or a little older. They are just guidelines for what is typical.

Don’t think that if your two-year-old child is unable to say 50 to 100 words the day after their second birthday, they should immediately see their pediatrician for a speech delay diagnosis.

These milestones are good barometers to measure your child’s progress against so you can monitor them, but shouldn’t be taken as the final determination of there being an underlying issue or not.

What Causes a Child to Have a Speech Delay?

When it comes to the underlying causes of speech delay in children, many things could be causing the issue.

Many people immediately jump to autism as the main culprit, but more often than not, that isn’t actually the case.

Here we’ll go over some of the most common causes of speech delays in children.

Hearing Issues

Learning to speak is done through the act of hearing what is meant to be learned.

For young children learning how to speak, they need to be able to hear what is being said around them on a normal basis.

Toddlers having hearing issues is one of the biggest causes of speech delays, and it is one that is often not thought about.

Why would an issue with speaking have to do with their ears, right?

But if they can’t effectively hear the words spoken around them, they will struggle to learn how to speak themselves.

Poor Verbal Stimulation

Have you ever tried learning a new language? Even back in high school when they had everyone take a foreign language class.

Maybe you’ve even tried some of the language learning software out there. If so, you know how hard it is to learn a language.

None of us really remember learning our native language because it’s a natural phenomenon that happens when you’re developing while being fully surrounded by that language regularly.

As such, total immersion in a place that speaks a different language is the most effective way to learn a new language, and it’s the same way for a toddler learning to speak.

If they aren’t verbally stimulated to the point where they’re immersed in language every day, they can struggle to learn to speak themselves.

Verbal stimulation is essential for children to develop the necessary skills to speak on their own, so be sure to audibly speak around your child while they’re developing at a young age.

how to know if your child has a speech delay

Neurological Problems

Brain disorders can lead to all sorts of issues, one of which is an effect on the muscles needed in order to speak properly.

Some of the most common muscle disorders in children that can lead to what seems like a speech delay include cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and even a traumatic brain injury.

With any of these neurological problems, there will likely be other accompanying issues outside of potential speech delays.

Potentially even more serious issues that should be managed as quickly as possible.

Physical Issues in the Mouth

As you can probably expect, if there is a physical issue in the mouth of the child, it might make it seem like they are struggling to speak because of a speech delay.

However, it could be due to something physically being wrong in their mouth.

One of the more common issues that lead to parents tinking their child may have a speech delay is being tongue-tied, clinically known as ankyloglossia.

This condition will cause their tongue to be connected to the floor of their mouth more than it should be.

This will understandably make it difficult to speak right, and it has nothing to do with being a late talker.


Although it isn’t as common of a cause for speech delay as many people think, it is still possible that the child is on the autistic spectrum.

It is a common thought because, as a hearing and speech professor and the Vanderbilt School of Medicine says, “Almost all kids with autism are late talkers, but not all late talkers have autism.

This statement means if a child is autistic, most of the time, they will also be a late talker or have a speech delay, but the statement does not go both ways.

It does not mean that if a child is a late talker, they also have autism.

It’s an important distinction to make, and one that people seem to forget as they worry about their child’s speech delay.

For more information about the relationship between speech delay and autism, check out our article that takes a much deeper dive into speech delay vs autism.

Just Catching Up

More often than not, the underlying cause of the “speech delay” is that there isn’t an underlying issue at all.

Per the previously alluded to professor Stephen Camarata, more than 10% of children will start talking late, leading parents to believe that they may have a speech delay.

Of these children who are late talkers, an estimate of over half of them, about 60%, will be speaking at normal levels in no time.

So if your child is taking a little longer than expected to start talking and forming basic sentences, chances are there is nothing to worry about, and they’ll end up being completely fine.

That’s no reason to avoid going to the doctor to have them properly diagnosed, though.

How Is a Speech Delay Diagnosed in Children?

Due to how all children develop differently and the fact that most of the time, there isn’t anything wrong, to begin with, diagnosing a speech delay can be a difficult task.

If you ever have a concern that your child does have a speech delay, like if they were way behind on the milestones above, you should set up an appointment with your child’s pediatrician.

Since your toddler can’t answer the questions themselves, just because they’re so young, not because of the speech delay, you’ll need to describe everything that’s going on and why you think there might be an issue.

The doctor will likely check out their mouth, tongue, and ears to check for any abnormalities.

If they think there might be something causing the issue, the pediatrician will be able to refer you to a specialist so that an expert can see your child.

Depending on what they think is going on, you may be referred to one of the following types of specialists:

  • audiologist to check their ears,
  • speech-language pathologist to help them learn to speak better,
  • or a neurologist to help figure out if there are any underlying issues with their brains causing the speech delay.

Since there are so many potential reasons behind a child developing a speech delay, there is no one rule on how to know if your child has a speech delay, so a specialist will be the best option moving forward to find out exactly what’s going on.

The doctor will let you know what the next steps are and how you can help your child get passed their speech delay.

What Do I Do if My Child Is Speech Delayed?

If your child has a speech delay, a lot of their learning and improvement will be done at home through your help.

Remember verbal stimulation? That’s what you can do to help your child learn to speak as much as possible.

Just by doing simple things like saying everything you’re doing out loud, having conversations with other people in the room, clearly gesturing towards things you’re talking about with your toddler, and letting them try to answer as much as they possibly can is the best thing you can do for them at home.

You can also try reading some of the best books on the market for helping your child get over their speech delay.

Outside of home treatment, medical treatment can be employed depending on the underlying cause of the issue.

Speech-language therapy is the best way to treat the issue if it’s an issue with speaking rather than any serious underlying cause.

If there is a serious issue causing the speech problems, the pediatrician and specialist will help direct you on what the best steps are moving forward.

How to Know if Your Child Has a Speech Delay: The Takeaways

If your toddler is coming up on 18 months and doesn’t quite know 20 words yet, don’t jump to the worst conclusions.

The chances are high that they are totally fine and will catch up to typical milestones in no time.

If they consistently miss the milestones that other kids are hitting or are noticeably struggling to speak, you should consider calling their pediatrician to set up an appointment.

There are so many different reasons that a child may be exhibiting symptoms similar to speech delay that you shouldn’t let yourself stress out about it; just let the experts figure out what’s going on.

The best thing that you can do to help your child’s speech delay is to make it a point to immerse them with verbal stimulation and help them learn as best you can!