Baby talk: speech development in toddlers

Speech development in toddlers
Image: @jasminabylund

Speech is one of the most important indicators of a toddler’s intellectual and emotional development. Nevertheless, all children are different when it comes to verbal communication. Some can produce distinct sounds at 18 months old, while others remain “tight-lipped” even at two and a half. On a daily basis, it is usually the baby’s ability to pronounce words that we use as a measuring rod for its ability to speak. We begin to worry if our baby is not talking.

Speech development is in fact a huge set of tasks, which a baby’s brain needs time to process. It begins virtually at birth, as soon as a baby becomes submerged into the world of sounds and learns to interact with people through them. Everything that a baby sees and hears has an influence on how its neural connections are formed, stimulating the brain. So speech skills become activated gradually. And the ability to pronounce words per se is far from the first to develop.

Therefore, to assess how well a baby’s speech is developing, we should not rely on this ability alone. In order to help a toddler learn what is one of the most complicated skills, we should not focus our attention on verbal communication alone. We will discuss how to create the best learning environment for a baby and not miss the key moments in its speech development.

Stages of speech development in kids
Image: @jasminabylund

Stages of speech development

During your child’s first check-up visits in the first two years of their life, the doctor will likely try to assess their overall development. A specific set of skills is expected of each stage of development, including those that define the ability to speak. No one can appreciate the variations in these norms more than a good paediatrician. It is therefore not in their interest to assess your baby to a certain rigid standard.

Nevertheless, if a doctor notices the lack of a specific ability by a certain age, they will get to the bottom of the underlying issues to fix it. A simple case in point is a child unable to imitate the sounds of animals, simply because it was not taught to do so by its parents. However, if a brain is developed enough to imitate sounds, all it would need is a cue from its parent that a cow “moos” and a dog “woofs” to effortlessly follow the lead.

It does not matter if speech development does not match the existing average statistics. What is important is evidence of improving abilities and the addition of new skills over time. Children often catch-up on certain stages in literally a matter of days, as the brain develops in bursts. However, this does require certain conditions.

Below are just some of the factors that can help stimulate speech development.

How to stimulate speech development
Image: @jasminabylund

How to stimulate speech development

1/ Pay attention to fine and gross motor skills

Many parents would know that fine motor skills and the ability to speak are interlinked. However, lately scientists have also started paying attention to the influence of gross motor skills on the formation of speech functions. In fact, one of the most progressive methods of speech development combines rhythmic movements with words.

How best to put this into practice? A swing, a hammock or a large gym ball can all come in handy. While rocking your child from side to side, pronounce syllables or short words such as “mo-mmy”, “da-ddy”, “one-two” or similar. Fine motor skills can in turn be improved through basic hand-clapping games like Patty Cake or Mary Mack.

2/ Hearing development stimulates speech

Comparing different sounds, paying attention to pitch and tonality, as well as volume and pace of a melody can all contribute to speech development. The best way to encourage them is to introduce your baby to a variety of musical instruments.

Choose instruments which produce pleasant, gentle and varied sounds such as a bell, a triangle, a caramba, a rattle, a reed, a whistle, a tambourine or a maraca. Store all the instruments together so that the baby can compare their sounds. Listening to a range of simple melodies, songs and dance tunes can also have a positive impact on hearing.

3/ Speak and listen

The only source of good language skills is targeted speech. In other words, as much as it might be tempting to hand the baby’s speech development over to a TV, Youtube or talking toys, they are of no use. Neurophysiologists are convinced that a child only learns to speak when being spoken to directly by real people. When communicating babies perceive intonations and read emotional reactions of other people already at six months of age.

The more you talk to your child from birth, the more stimulation you provide for him to interact with you through language. Starting with babbling and gestures and gradually moving towards syllables and sound imitation. As the brain becomes mature enough, words will too begin to form.

When speech development deviates from the norm
Image: @jasminabylund

When speech development deviates from the norm

Undoubtedly, external factors can be both stimulating and limiting in their effect on speech development. Before letting worry take the best of you and turning to an expert, it is best to assess your child’s difficulties against the following two causes.

› Bilingual living environment

A baby growing up with adults speaking several languages would develop its speech abilities differently. Bilingual children do start to speak later but long-term the development of their cognitive functions often turns out better than that of their peers. If your child is surrounded by a multi-lingual environment, make sure to communicate this to your doctor, as this factor is of utmost importance when assessing speech development.

› Sensory overload or stress with hypersensitivity

The high volumes of information which we encounter daily can be hard to process even for an adult. When exposed to too many triggers, a child’s vulnerable nervous system can simply switch off from the outside world. Delayed speech development can in such cases be a defence mechanism from stress and overload. This is especially common for children with sensory hypersensitivity.

Make sure to assess your child’s environment for sensory overload. Children prior to the age of 3-4 are unable to focus on too many objects at once, which is why it is best to put all unnecessary objects out of sight. Here are some simple measures you can take, which can bring profound results.

  • Leave only a handful of toys and books in sight
  • Create more free space for the baby to roam
  • Keep noise triggers to a minimum
  • Schedule your routine to account for sufficient sleep and outdoor activities

Once the outside world stops being so overly saturated for a child, the brain is replenished to make progress.

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