“Umm…” I stammered. “Maybe three?” I replied. Even after I said it I knew I wasn’t being completely accurate. His three words weren’t words so much as babbles. He would say “mamama…” but without any direct correlation to me (or anything else, really), but because it sounded close to “mama” I counted it as a word. The other two were just as incoherent. The pediatrician mentioned that most 18-month-olds say an average of 10 words, and that two-year-olds say an average of 50. When I couldn’t even coax three distinct words out of my toddler, I launched into full-on worry mode.
“What could be causing his delay?” my husband and I asked ourselves. First we considered the fact that our toddler was exposed to multiple languages. We mentioned this to his pediatrician, who reassured us that bilingualism only delays language skills by a month. Still, we were silly enough to go through his children’s songs and delete those that weren’t in English (I now wish I had a back up of “Frere Jacques” and “De Colores”!).
We also wondered whether baby sign language could be contributing to his delay. Long touted as a means to actually help children speak earlier, we now targeted baby sign language as a potential culprit for why our toddler wasn’t saying any words. “Maybe he got so used to signing ‘eat’ that he doesn’t need to say the word,” we wondered. But because we had heard so many positive associations with signing (and because it really did help our toddler communicate with us), we continued with baby signing.
I Googled possible causes for speech delay (never Google anything while you are worried) and I came up with a slew of issues that I began to worry about. “Is he social enough?” “How come he prefers books nowadays instead of cuddling with us?” “Why doesn’t he smile as often as his little cousin?” And the questions went on and on.
The biggest detriment to worrying wasn’t even the needless headache I imposed on myself, nor the long hours of researching symptoms that my toddler hadn’t even been diagnosed with yet; it was my growing impatience and lack of faith in my toddler. The day we arrived home from the doctor’s appointment, I embarked on a mission to get my toddler talk. I held up a ball and made sure he was looking at me and said, “This is a BALL. Ball. Can you say ‘ball’? Say ‘ball’.” In more normal circumstances, these prompts are actually helpful; I am supposed to enunciate and tie the word to an item. But he sensed the worry in my voice, saw the impatience written all over my face, and reacted the way anyone would: he got frustrated.
That’s when I learned I needed to take a step back. I had to be his biggest advocate, not someone pressuring him to perform beyond his abilities. I needed to guide him through these exercises while respecting his learning curve. I’m thankful that I was able to see that early on because I would have hated to nag him and endure weeks and months of frustrating episodes all because of a worry.
We continued to work with him, and some of that Google research actually turned up pretty useful. We also spoke with early intervention therapists who, while we never actually ended up needing their services by the time his application was approved, still provided us with many tips on how to encourage speech. I pushed the worry aside and focused instead on encouraging my toddler in a positive way.
And one day, he did it. While eating bananas, he said, “Nana.” Leave it to my food-loving toddler to assign the beloved first word to a favorite fruit. The flow of new words suddenly erased all those months of worry. I wrote down his new words until the list grew too long and I stopped keeping count.
I remember that time and realize how needlessly I subjected myself to worry. This isn’t to say that I shouldn’t have been concerned, but pure concern simply means you do ABC to achieve XYZ. There are no cluttered thoughts poisoning the mind with what ifs that haven’t even happened. I learned to worry less—a lot less. Every subsequent issue that might have ensued similar worries have been dealt with more calmly and rationally since then.
After all, worry has never done me any good especially when all my toddler needed was some time and help. So yes, I should have asked, “Can you say ‘ball’?” but with a smile, a pair of gentle eyes and a more patient, encouraging and worry-free attitude.
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