Speech Delay In Toddlers: 19 Red Flags To Watch For

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Article updated oct 2017


Children develop at different rates.  Some children walk at 9 months where others don’t take their first steps until 15 months.  Both of these are considered normal.

The same goes for speech and language development.  

The average age a child will say his first word or 2 is 12 months.  But keep in mind, this is average.

Some children will be saying “mama” and “dada” (with purpose) at 10 months.  Another child might not say her first real word until 15 months.  Again both of these children would be considered to be developing normally.

But, the earlier a language delay is detected, the better.  And there are certain skills you can be on the lookout for.

It’s easy to see that language development can be tricky and as a (former) Speech-Language Pathologist, I know how important language skills are for a child’s future success.

Researchers have found that vocabulary size is a great indicator of a child’s overall school achievement (Rowe, M. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development: 83(5), 1762-1774).

It sounds like I am contradicting myself a bit, but unfortunately language development is not black and white.  If you are ever questioning your child’s language skills (or lack thereof) it is best to contact a licensed speech-language pathologist to see if an evaluation is necessary.

To recap, we know that children develop spoken language at different rates.  However, we also know that if certain language milestones aren’t met, a child may struggle once they get to school.

You may want to read this article as it will better explain language development and how it varies from child to child.

*Note: The term “speech delay” is being used interchangeably with “language delay”.

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Speech Delay In Toddlers – What To Look For

The following milestones are for children between 12 and 26 months.

If you find yourself saying “yes that’s my child” to 3 or more of the points below, please look into having a speech and language evaluation done for your child.

By 18 Months Your Child

♦ Is not babbling (for example, wuwuwu, dabada, nanana, etc.)
♦ Is not using at least 3-4 consonants (for example, p, b, d, t, m, n)
♦ Is not saying about 3-5 words (pronunciation does not have to be correct) by 15 months
♦ Is not using gestures to communicate (for example, shaking/nodding head, waving, blowing kisses, clapping, etc.)
♦ Does not understand common words such as “bye”, “no”, “give me” etc.
♦ Does not point to items of interest.
♦ Cannot point to 2 body parts when asked (early body parts children at this age should understand are eyes, nose, mouth, ears, tummy, hands, feet)
♦ Is not using approximately 15 words by 18 months.

By 26 Months Your Child

♦ Is not using at least one new word a week.
♦ Does not respond to simple, one step directions. For example, touch your nose or get the ball or hug the bear.
♦ Does not engage in early pretend play. For example, put a cup to a doll’s mouth to give doll a drink, drive a toy car around the floor, etc.
♦ Does not imitate simple actions such as clapping, waving, jumping, etc.
♦ Does not imitate easy words (ball, dog, hi, pop, up, go, mama, dada, etc.)
♦ Is not using between 40 and 50 words
♦ Does not combine 2 words. For example, baby eat, daddy shoe, mama go.
♦ Is not pointing to pictures during shared reading.
♦ Cannot name 3 body parts
♦ Does not know the function of common objects such as a cup, fork, brush, etc.
♦ Does not ask short questions such as “what’s that?”

Does Your Toddler Have A Speech-Language Delay?

If you feel that after reading these red flags that your toddler may have a speech delay, please seek the professional opinion of a Speech-Language Pathologist.

In the meantime, be sure to download the PDF file called “17 Tips To Help A Toddler With A Speech Delay” so you can start making a positive impact on your child’s language development!


You may have noticed that I keep mentioning that if you are ever concerned about your child’s language development to take him/her to see a Speech-Language Pathologist.

If you are wondering why I didn’t suggest your family doctor or pediatrician, there is good reason for this.

I am not trying to downplay the knowledge of medical professionals however, family doctors and even general practice pediatricians do not have the same in depth training that Speech-Language Pathologists have (for me it was a 3 year Masters Degree with the majority of my coursework focusing on language development).

Many family doctors receive little to no formal training regarding language development.  And pediatricians focus more on medical issues in childhood.  With the exception of developmental pediatricians.  They would have more current information regarding language development in children.

Many of these professionals want to put parents fears at ease and tell stories about children who didn’t talk until they were 3,4 or even 5 and are now doctors, lawyers, astronauts, etc.

While practicing as a speech pathologist I had many parents calling me saying their doctor told them not to be worried about their child’s language development, however they were worried and decided to get my opinion.

♥ You May Also Like: Building A Strong Vocabulary Starts At Birth! ♥

Please make sure to read What Is A Late Talker? The Truth Revealed! as in that article I explain why taking a “wait and see” approach isn’t always the best way to go.

Another myth I often hear is that boys speak later than girls.  This is true to some extent, but not the way most people would expect.

The gap is usually no more than 2 months.

One more common myth surrounding language development is that second born children often don’t speak as early as first born children.  Again this isn’t quite true.

In fact, second born children have their siblings as role models so they actually should be picking up language faster than their first born sibling.

However, if the second born child has a quieter disposition, then they may sit back while their older sibling talks.  But, you should still hear this child using words when the sibling isn’t talking or around.

Speech delays in toddlers can be normal and part of the wide range of when certain milestones are acquired.

But, please do not shrug off the fact that your toddler is not speaking.

The sooner a child receives intervention the more success he will have and if everything else is developing as expected the length of time spent in language therapy sessions should be reduced quite a bit.

Toddler speech and language skills develop at different rates. But be aware of red flags that could indicate intervention may be the best option.

Are You Concerned Your Toddler May Have A Speech/Language Delay?  Click for all 19 red flags to watch for!

12 Comments

  1. Nella

    Hi Tanya, I have a background in speech and language and I teach English to students who speak another language at home.. Any way, I am concerned that I might be confusing my 17 month old because he is exposed to Italian and English daily. The baby sitter will speak to him mostly in Italian and I speak to him mostly in English and he watche s animations in English in the morning and Italian in the evening. He is not saying mamma yet more like “mmmmm” instead. He seems to understand when he is spoken to but doesn’t point to anything yet. He does babble but sometimes prefers to scream or make grunts. He does make eye contact and tries to interact with others and things only if interested. What do you think? I thought because he has so much language around him that he would be at least saying some words or phrases by now. 🙁

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Nella,

      Children learning more than one language at a time do typically speak a bit later than those exposed to only one language. However at 17 months of age, a multilingual child should still be saying at least 10-15 works in any language. There should be babbling and pointing as well.

      I strongly recommend you have your son assessed by a speech-language pathologist. This will be the only way to really see what is going on and why your son is having difficulty with language.

      Reply
  2. Marco SJ

    This is a very helpful post and I’m so glad that I came across it. I must admit, I was quite nervous when I got to the list because I was worried about whether I was going to say ‘yes’ to any of the points. (I have a 1-year old right now)

    I’ll forward this to some of my buddies who have children that are like my son’s age.

    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      I’m glad you found this article helpful Marco.  If you answer “yes” to a few of these points, everything is probably fine.   But speech delays in toddlers need to be given attention in the early years as this is a critical time period in a child’s development.  

      Reply
  3. Cath

    I love you website and would have been happy to have had it at hand when my kids where younger. I did find out that bilingual kids tend to start talking a little bit later and sometimes use the two languages in one sentence. However, my kids then went on to speak each language on its own but you need to stay on track so that one language does not fully dominate the others. Which makes them weaker. This is what I noticed would you agree with this observation ? Thanks

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Cath,

      Yes, children learning more than one language do speak a bit later than those exposed to just one language.  But again, this is only within a few months of mono-lingual children. 

      It is also normal for children to mix the languages together.  This does sort itself out.  

      The only way for a child to be strong in more than one language will require them to use all languages equally.  So if your child is speaking English most of the day at school, then in order for the other language to stay strong the child would need to be exposed to it at home on a regular basis.

      I grew up in a bilingual house.  My first language was actually German.  I didn’t learn English until I was 3.  But as my parents English got better (and mine as well) we started speaking more and more English at home and less German.  I can still speak German, but I struggle to find words and make grammatically correct sentences.

      Reply
  4. John

    I love your article, it is very Informative and interesting. I agree with the fact that children develop at different rates. My third child developed much faster compared to my first and second child. She said her first word at the ninth month while my other two children said their first word at the eleventh month. I believe frequent communication with babies can help improve their speech. Thanks so much for sharing this article, reading through every single line was worth it.

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Thanks John!  Parents need to realize that if their toddler has a speech-language delay it is nothing to be ashamed about.  You’re right that frequent communication and interactions starting at birth is extremely important.  But despite doing this there will still be toddlers who end up needing some language therapy to get them caught up.  And the earlier this is done the better the long term outcomes for the child.

      Reply
  5. Sarah

    Very informative post. What about the theory that bilingual children tend to speak later because they’re figuring out 2 languages, is there any truth to that?

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Sarah,

      It is true that bilingual children tend to speak a bit later because they are working on 2 languages. However, if there is a delay in both languages being spoken then it could be an indicator that this child would have a speech/language delay regardless of being bilingual or not. As long as the child is making gains in both languages and learning new words from both and there are no other red flags, chances are the child will catch up. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  6. Christina Briggs

    Very informative website. I like it very much and I agree with you. I have always put a lot of care into the way I talked to my babies, from birth. It makes a huge difference. Also, paying that attention to the baby is just what they need. Interaction and security.

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Thaanks for your comment Christina. You are right. Babies need lots of interaction with others in order to develop and thrive.

      Reply

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