You take your child for a play date, and you notice that the other babies are babbling, responding to their names, and playing normally, but your beautiful bundle of joy is not quite yet doing those things. What do you do?
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders (NIDCD), 5% of children have noticeable speech disorders, and 6 to 8 million people in the United States have some form of language impairment. For many kids, speech problems are caused by hearing impairments. With the help of audiologists and speech language pathologists (sometimes called speech therapists), some of the problems can be fixed. The earlier you catch the problem the better.
“There are some signs parents should look for in their kids,” says Laura Ciampini, MS, CCC-SLP, a speech language pathologist with the Speech and Hearing Center at St Joseph’s Children’s Hospital. “At 6 months, a baby should be babbling and making eye contact. At 8 months, [she] should respond to her name, play, and have some social skills. At 12 months, your child should know two to three words like mama and dada, and she should be imitating the sounds you make. At 18 months, she should be able to form two to three word sentences like mommy play, and at 2, she should know about 200 words.”
Ciampini suggests that if by the time your child is 1 to 1½ years old, he is not meeting these benchmarks, discuss it with your pediatrician.
There also are signs to look for in older kids as well. Some red flags in school-age children are not understanding language, having trouble learning to read or having trouble with directions in school. They may have Auditory Processing Disorder and will need to be brought in for an exam.
Ciampini also recommends that parents seek help if their child is having trouble with fluency, such as a stutter. “Kids have a normal stutter pattern when they are younger. It is like their brain is working faster than their mouth can keep up, but by age of 4 or 5, the stutter should diminish,” Ciampini says.
If you notice these signs in your children, the first step is to contact their pediatrician. From there, the pediatrician will prescribe a language evaluation or hearing test with a speech therapist and audiologist. The audiologist will conduct tests and determine whether there is a hearing issue, and the cause. Sometimes it can be fluid in the ears. Sometimes the child needs a cochlear implant. The audiologist will diagnose your child and refer her to a speech therapist.
The speech therapist will perform a one-hour evaluation, which the parents will observe. Once the issue is determined, most kids come back for two 30-minute sessions a week. “The goal of therapy is to increase speech,” Ciampini says. “We not only teach the child, but we also teach the parents.”
In speech therapy, parents are encouraged to observe and sit in to see how to facilitate language in their kids. Therapy also teaches parents how to engage their kids at home to keep them learning between therapy sessions.
During the speech therapy sessions, the therapist may use a variety of techniques or strategies to help your child. For example, they may use language intervention activities such as playing or talking, modeling correct ways to say words. They also may use articulation therapy, where they show the kids how to articulate certain sounds or even feeding and swallowing therapy, which include facial massage and tongue, lip and jaw exercises.
There are some things that parents can do at home to help their children’s speech. The most important is to make sure your kids are engaged. Don’t just leave them sitting and playing; talk to them. Read to them.
“It is also great to use language for everyday activities, things that you wouldn’t normally explain, especially if you have a 2 or 3 year old. Explain what you are doing. For example, if you are doing laundry talk to them and say, ‘Mommy is doing laundry’ or ‘Mommy is folding clothes’ ” Ciampini recommends.
Seeing a speech language pathologist can make a huge difference in your child’s speech and language. The earlier that you start speech therapy the easier it will be for the child. If you suspect any hearing or speech issues with your child, speak to his pediatrician so you can get a referral to a speech language pathologist and/or audiologist if necessary. The Speech and Hearing Center at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital is an option to help get your kids back on track.