Speech Delay In Toddlers: 19 Red Flags To Watch For

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UPDATED MARCH 2018


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.

Both of these children would likely be considered to be developing normally.

But, the earlier a language delay is detected, the better.

And there are certain skills (or lack thereof) 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*

I realize that 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!


For more in depth strategies to help your child’s language development at home, be sure to get the book “It Takes Two To Talk” by Speech-Language Pathologist Elaine Weitzman.

I always referred parents to this book when I saw a young child for a speech and language evaluation!  You will not regret it.

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.

In the article What Is A Late Talker? The Truth Revealed! I go into detail explaining why taking a “wait and see” approach isn’t always the best way to go.

Building a strong vocabulary starts at birth banner
Speech and Language Development Myths

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.

*(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).

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!
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22 Comments

  1. Geraldine Gaspard

    My nephew just turn 4 and I use to think it is because we speak 3 different language around him that cause a delay in his speech. But now we realized there’s something wrong with him because he does not understand fully as well, he will copy alot from when we speak, like repeat the samething that was said, refer to himself as a 3rd person, and call me daddy , or call his mom and dad Tanty. And sometimes he can speak a full sentence that makes sense but along the way he switch to baby language. My sister took him to France to get his brain check but there’s really nothing much that could be done because they say it’s not like he can’t speak or understand it’s just that it is not consistent. Anyone can help ?

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Geraldine,

      I am not sure where you live, but I would recommend your nephew be assessed by a licensed speech language pathologist. This person can help figure out how much he is understanding and give ideas for treatment. If there are other areas in his development you (and his parents) are concerned about then perhaps an assessment by a psychologist who specializes in child development may be a good idea.

      Unfortunately I don’t have much information to go on so I can only give general recommendations. However, from the information you did provide and given his age I would find someone to assess him.

      Reply
  2. thecraftzoom

    I really enjoyed reading this post. 

    It is very useful for parents to be aware of red flags like the ones you described.  I know we shouldn’t compare our kids as they are all different, but maybe comparing isn’t a bad thing as it can show when a child maybe isn’t achieving important milestones.  It can be something subtle that you might not think about, so this is a great article to have on hand. Thank you for the info.

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      I agree!  Parents shouldn’t be constantly comparing their child with others, because there is a range in what is considered “normal development”.  But, for example, if you notice all the other 2 year old’s around your child are saying 2-3 word phrases to communicate and your child is only pointing and grunting (and is also 2), then maybe it would be a good idea to seek professional advice. 

      Many children will catch up but there are some who would benefit from speech and language therapy.

      Reply
  3. DorcasW

    Hi Tanya

    I read through your post I found the information very necessary.

    Parents and nannies should be looking out for anything that could prove negative in a child development; and if so identify; never keep it to themselves and believe that time will fix it.

    My biological son began saying words from eight months although the words were not clear they could be understood.

    He amazes us by nine months. While my niece never said a clear word until she was seven years. However, she would point on things nod her head and so on from about thirteen months.

    Her mother who is a nurse saw it as normal; but I sought for help for her.  And she was diagnosed with a mild developmental delay.  So she has been getting treatment which has been helping.

    I hope that a lot of people will read this post and follow your advice.

    DorcasW

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Dorcas,

      Thanks for sharing your story.  

      I know as a parent it is not good to constantly be comparing your child with another, however, when it comes to some of these early developmental milestones (such as language development), there is a crucial period where certain things need to be happening. 

      If these developments get too far off track the child will begin to struggle in other areas as well.

      This is why I do not recommend a “wait and see” approach when it comes to language development.  
      I am glad to hear that your niece ended up receiving the treatment she needed.  She is lucky to have you as an advocate!

      Reply
  4. Melissa

    Research with small children has come so far since mine were little. I love how people are coming out with more signs that a child may be developing a little slower. This way they can get help with things such as speech and language before they enter school and it then gets even harder.
    Thank you so much sharing this with us.

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      I agree Melissa! Early intervention (birth to 3) is ideal for giving a child who may be a bit behind the tools they need to catch up and be successful. Studies show that the earlier a child received therapy for language development the better the outcomes. This is why I rarely recommend a “wait and see” approach when a child isn’t talking as expected.

      Reply
  5. Ellie

    My question is, my daughter who is 18 months understands a lot of words, but she says very little. In fact she had about 9 words at 17 months but several have dropped out of her vocabulary…like Daddy. She uses many gestures and some sign language and does babble. But I’m concerned there hasn’t been progression. In fact I feel like there has been regression. Would you recommend I seek out a speech pathologist and how soon should I go?

    Reply
    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Ellie,

      I would definitely recommend that your daughter be seen by a Speech-Language pathologist. I am not sure where you are located, but most publicly funded programs have long wait lists so you should add her name as soon as possible. The other option would be to find someone in private practice as your daughter would be seen much sooner. If you have good insurance coverage the assessment would most likely be covered. Or else you would have to pay out of pocket.

      The sooner a child is assessed the better! The speech pathologist may give you some activities to work on at home or may suggest seeing your daughter a few times for some sessions.

      I’m not trying to worry you, but early intervention is best. And your daughter may have a word burst any day as these often happen around 18-20 months.

      But I never advise a wait and see approach.

      Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions!

      In the meantime, I think you will find these articles helpful with regards to helping your daughter communicate at home.
      17 Tips To Help A Toddler With A Speech-Language Delay
      Speech and Language Activities You Can Easily Work On At Home

      Reply
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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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