Language delay in young children is usually not a problem

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
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Any new parent tends to be a little anxious about their child reaching his or her milestones on time. From the first smile to the first rollover, each leap is scrutinized with utmost seriousness. New parents, and even seasoned ones, can be especially troubled by any delays in the development of language in their children. Late talkers tend to receive intense attention about the fact – a worry that may be, in many cases unwarranted. A new longitudinal study out of the University of Western Australia in Subiaco shows that despite the challenges and seeming developmental delays suffered by late talkers, they turn out just fine in the end.

The study, published July 4th in the journal Pediatrics, followed more than 1,400 two-year olds, born between 1989 and 1991. The researchers found that one of 10 kids was a late talker - and these kids tended to act more introverted and displayed more emotional problems. Expressive language delays, as delays in talking are technically called, are often associated with emotional and behavioral difficulties. But that may not be due to an inherent problem with the child’s development as much as a consequence of the frustration in not being able to express one’s needs and emotional state verbally. It makes sense that if the ability to verbalize is blocked, the alternative channel of communication is behavioral.

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Even though the children studied displayed the disruptive behaviors at age two, when they were subsequently followed at ages five, eight, 10, 14 and 17, the researchers found that late talkers grew out of both their silence and their behavioral problems. In fact, the late-talking children didn't show any significant differences in developmental or intellectual delays upon their first follow-up at age five, and that effect continued through 17.

"When the late-talking children catch up to normal language milestones, which the majority of children do, the behavioral and emotional problems are no longer apparent," said Dr. Andrew Whitehouse, an associate professor of developmental psychopathology, one of the study’s researchers.

Although parents ought to be on the lookout for obvious signs of developmental delay, such as gross and fine motor skill development, eye contact, and the recognition and acknowledgement of caregivers, they ought not, perhaps, to go into full panic mode if their child is still speaking in single-word sentences by age two. A consultation with the pediatrician, and perhaps a speech language pathologist is always wise, but the single most important contribution parents can make to their child’s language development is to provide a language-rich environment.

No, that does not mean Baby Einstein videos. Interacting with the child at their level is the key – playing with them, reading to them, and asking a lot of questions.

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Comments

It's encouraging to learn that parents need not worry too much if their child is a late talker. On the other hand, sometimes this can be an indicator of serious problems - and these should then be dealt with promptly. So, the skill of the good specialist, is being able to know when to reassure, and when to intervene. Readers may be interested to watch my 16 minute documentary about children with speech disorders. It was produced in the 1980s, but the issues remain the same – and much more needs to be done. “Speaking Out – children with speech disorders”, can now be freely viewed on my YouTube channel