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Keeping Your Child on Track With Speech and Language Development

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The first few years of your child’s life are so exciting, as you watch a tiny, helpless newborn grow into an increasingly independent toddler and beyond. At the time a baby is born, most parents are thankful simply that he or she is healthy. In the months ahead, though, the focus often shifts to the child’s development: Is he or she growing physically, emotionally and intellectually, hitting the milestones children that age typically reach?

One of the important areas of development is speech and language. “Speech” refers to producing the sounds that make up words and sentences, and “language” refers to the use of those words and sentences to communicate ideas.

You’re likely around your child more—and in a wider variety of situations—than anyone else, so you are in a good position to observe your child’s speech and language development. But it’s often hard to know whether or not your child is progressing as expected.

For example, your child may be hard to understand or may speak in shorter sentences than other children of the same age. But does that necessarily mean he or she is developmentally delayed? First, it is critical to be clear that children are individuals: There simply is not a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating development.

However, there are guidelines you can use to help you answer your questions about your child’s speech and language development. Here are a few milestones you might watch for over the first several years of your child’s life:

Age 1. Children should be able to understand a variety of words and should be using a few single words.

Age 2. Children should be combining words into two- and three-word phrases and sentences.

Ages 3 to 5. During this time, children should be learning to carry on a conversation, ask and answer questions, follow and give directions, and speak alone in the presence of a group. These are important skills to possess as the child prepares to start school.

Ages 5 to 8. The sentences children create should become increasingly complex, using words like when, while and since to relate two or more ideas in a single sentence.

In general, you should be able to understand what your child is saying by age 4, and he or she should be using all speech sounds correctly by age 5 to 7.

There are certain circumstances that might hinder the proper development of speech and language skills. For example, ear infections or an unusually long stay in the hospital (six months or more) can create a delay. In addition, a child’s frustration over not being understood by playmates or other people—particularly when this situation continues for weeks or months—can also interfere with his or her development.

So what should you do if you’re concerned about your child’s speech and language development? First and foremost, don’t put off taking action. Developmental delays can create a snowball effect if the child is getting older yet continually lagging in speech and language skills. The earlier you catch this, the easier it will be for your child. Don’t be embarrassed to talk with someone who is qualified to help.

A good place to start is your pediatrician, family medicine doctor or other primary care physician. He or she can likely do some basic evaluation right in the office. You might also get a referral to a pediatric therapy program, like the Child Development Center at Simi Valley Hospital. These types of programs specialize in helping children with a wide range of developmental delays, including physical, cognitive (thinking) and speech/language delays.

The professionals in a pediatric therapy program are specially trained to work with young children. They have knowledge in both child development and their particular area of therapeutic expertise, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy or speech/language therapy. Therapists use play and other natural activities of young children to make therapy fun while achieving the goals of the treatment.

Don’t allow worries about your child’s development to overshadow the joy of experiencing all the milestones in your little one’s life. But at the same time, if you have concerns, know that there are people out there who can help.

Julie Wong is the manager of the Child Development Center at Simi Valley Hospital.