Communication disorders can be corrected, if parents of young children know the warning signs.
Young children learn how to communicate primarily by listening to others speak. The speech, language and hearing skills we develop from birth to age 3 lay the groundwork for lifelong success with reading and writing, academics, social interactions and career advancement. That’s why an early childhood communication disorder, if left untreated, may lead to challenges and setbacks that can last a lifetime.
Parents of young children are generally unaware of what a speech/language or hearing problem looks or sounds like, and may be missing or even ignoring the warning signs. Yet, early intervention for such disorders can dramatically improve a child’s lifelong ability to understand others and express themselves with greater ease and confidence.
The following are signs of a language disorder, based on the child’s age:
- Does not smile nor interact with others (from birth)
- Does not babble (4–7 months)
- Makes only a few sounds or gestures, like pointing (7–12 months)
- Does not understand what others say (7 months–2 years)
- Says only a few words (12–18 months)
- Words are not easily understood (18 months–2 years)
- Does not put words together to make sentences (1.5–3 years)
- Has trouble playing and talking with other children (2–3 years)
- Has trouble with early reading and writing skills (2.5–3 years)
If your child is displaying any of these behaviors, seek a professional evaluation. You can make some everyday changes at home to help your child advance their language skills. Don’t forget to respond to your child when they’re speaking. Talk, read and play with your child every day. Speak to them in the language that you’re most comfortable using, but recognize that it’s good to teach your child to speak a second language. Talk about what you’re doing and what your child is doing in the moment. Use a lot of different words and longer sentences, especially as your child gets older. Encourage social situations: allow your child play with other kids.
The following are signs of a speech-sound disorder, based on the child’s age:
- Says P, P, M, H and W incorrectly in words (1–2 years)
- Says K, G, F, G and D incorrectly in words (2–3 years)
- Produces speech that is unclear, even to familiar people (2–3 years)
It’s okay if your child makes some mistakes with sounds. But, if he or she is consistently experiencing any of these issues with speech, seek a professional evaluation rather than correcting your child’s speech sounds. It is more important to let your child keep talking without criticism. In addition, ensure that you pronounce these sounds correctly when you talk to them.
The following are signs of stuttering:
- Shows frustration when trying to get words out
- Repeats first sounds of words
- Speech breaks while trying to say a word
- Stretches sounds out
If treated by a certified speech-language pathologist, a stutter can be corrected, giving the child more confidence to express themselves verbally. If your child is stuttering, give them more time to talk without interruption or frustration. Resist the urge to speak on their behalf or tell them to slow down while they speak.
The following are signs of hearing loss, based on the child’s age:
- Shows a lack of attention to sounds (birth–1 year)
- Does not respond when you call their name or does so inconsistently (7 months–1 year)
- Does not follow simple directions (1–2 years)
- Shows delays in speech and language development (birth–3 years)
- Pulls or scratches at their ears
- Has difficulty achieving academically, especially in reading and math
- Is socially isolated and unhappy at school
- Has persistent ear discomfort after exposure to loud noises
“Even mild hearing loss or impaired hearing in one ear can cause a child to miss as much as half of classroom discussion,” said Domitille Lochet, an auditory-verbal therapist with the University of Miami Health System.
If your child is displaying any of these behaviors, visit a certified audiologist, who should perform a hearing screening. “Only 16 percent of physicians routinely screen for hearing loss,” Lochet pointed out. “So, relying solely on your pediatrician’s assessment isn’t enough.” Be aware that infants are never too young to have their hearing tested, and hearing loss can begin months or years after birth. Modern hearing aids and cochlear (in-ear) implants are barely visible and can be life-changing for a hearing-impaired child.
Advice for parents
If you’re a parent of a young child who is struggling more than expected to understand you or speak to you, don’t assume your child will grow out of this behavior. As your child grows from birth to age 3, a communication disorder can advance and become harder to treat, which can also be more expensive.
If your child has been diagnosed with a hearing, speech or language condition, “Don’t think of it in terms of a disorder, disability or label. It’s an eligibility,” advises Alex Mestres, an educational specialist at the UHealth Ear Institute. “This eligibility makes it clear what the child needs to have the best possible outcomes. We want to see students for who they are and what they know, not judge them for what they can or cannot do.”
It also helps to recognize that “lowering your own stress will likely lead to more positive outcomes for your child’s treatment and long-term success,” said Lochet. “When possible, give yourself and your parenting partner personal free time. That way, you can better stimulate your child during everyday interactions, which is more effective for language development.”
In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children under the age of two have zero screen time, unless it’s used to communicate with family members. This encourages more social interactions, which is beneficial for speech and language development.
Keep in mind that treatments for communication disorders are highly effective, especially when parents are proactive in seeking the help of American Speech-Language-Hearing Association-certified professionals from the very first sign of a problem. “At the UHealth Ear Institute, families find a team of audiologists, speech-language pathologists, an education specialist and a social worker who support them in their listening journey, meeting each family member where he/she is in the process,” Lochet said.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog.