Speech Delay and the Last Time I Worried

Flashback Friday: Speech delay and the last time I worried-bunch of bananas

When my little guy was a baby, we kept hearing from people, “Oh, he’s going to be an early talker, just listen to him babble!” And I proudly assumed the same until his 15-month appointment when his pediatrician asked the question that changed my mind: “How many words does he say?”

“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.

How do you handle worries, especially with developmental milestones? Have your kids struggled with speech delay?

Nina

Nina is a working mom to three boys—a five-year-old and toddler twins. She blogs about parenting at Sleeping Should Be Easy, where she writes everything she's learning about being mom and all its joys and challenges. She also covers topics like how kids learn and play, family life, being a working mom and life with twins. Download her free ebook, "Time Management Strategies for the Overwhelmed Mom" for more tips.

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  1. says

    What was the age he started really saying words? We are just starting Early Intervention this month…my son is 20 months and only has a few “real” words – sha sha for please, baba for bottle, foo for food, vroom for car, choo choo for train & mooo for cow. But he doesn’t ALWAYS respond to us when we speak to him and definitely doesn’t listen most of the time. So, just wondering because I am definitely worried. Thanks!

    • says

      Lisa, he said his first word at 18 months, and his vocab really exploded between 20 to 21 months, at which point I believe he had about 40+ words. I hope your worries will ease soon; I know that insane feeling!

  2. the speech monster says

    have you considered taking him to a speech-language pathologist? what did your pediatrician say about his speech development.
    keeping a journal is good because that way you have solid evidence in black adn white rather than relying on your brain which is probably quite sleep deprived and frazzled at times. :)

    with regards to encouraging him i would say something like “ooh, ball, now it’s your turn to say ball” and then point to him signaling that it’s “his turn.” i would also when he says “nana” to say “banana” and model good, correct speech for him even when “nana” sounds so darn cute. also when he plays with his toys, do LOTS of self talk with him and parallel talk. make lots of sounds: animal, car sounds are the favorites of therapists. because that way he can imitate more easily and when you can get his attention this way, lengthen your sentences “car goes vrooom.” (keep the sentences short and manageable first and then build your way up)

    you might have already seen this checklist: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/pages/speechandlanguage.aspx

    there are other good websites for facilitating speech like the hanen program, caroline bowen speech and language website, american speech and hearing association website. looking forward to reading more posts!

  3. says

    Thank you for this! My oldest (almost 4) was very advanced when it came to talking. My younger, well, it definitely seems like it is taking him a lot longer to form words. Yes, he has “words” that refer to different objects, but they aren’t at all correct words :-) He is 20 months now, and he is referring to many more things now, which is nice, but I was worried about how well he pronounced words. But a few weeks ago, I just let it go. I figured that he wouldn’t be speaking baby babble forever, and I know he understands what we are saying. Plus, he has a big sister that tells us all of his needs before he even has a chance to gesture at something. :-)

  4. says

    Last year Ally was diagnosed with a heart murmur. As a (then) biology student I flipped through me textbook in order to terrify myself with all of the terrible disorders that she maybe could die from.
    A month of worry, then a 30 minute echocardiogram, and an all-clear pass.
    I almost worried myself into old age.

  5. Steph says

    I like your differentiation between concern and worry. Concern is very helpful and needed but worry is time consuming and worthless.

  6. chewchewmama says

    Hey there! I am a Speech Language Pathologist (Hanen Certified, among others!) and other than stressing yourself out with google (but every mama does!), I think you handled everything perfectly! Sounds like your pediatrician did his/her job to be sure that you were right on track. So important to keep in mind that milestones show where the average amount of children are developing skills, but there is a big range of “average” and some children are faster and some are slower when reaching these. Sometimes, children just need more time. Working with your pediatrician and getting Early Steps on board is always the right place to start and following up with a second opinion via a Speech and Language Evaluation with a Speech Language Pathologist is recommended. If you have a children’s hospital near you…go there! That’s where the experts are :) Sounds like your little one just needed more time and is off and running with his speech! Good job, Mama!

    • says

      Thanks for the tips! Yeah, my pediatrician rocks, and she’s quite an advocate for early intervention. I gladly took her advice for getting help even though my toddler didn’t end up needing it. It can be a hassle having another set of things to do, but better safe than sorry, right? And yes, I’m so glad we didn’t stop baby signing. I’m sure it helped my toddler feel empowered that he could sign something that we completely understood.

  7. chewchewmama says

    P.S. And Signing with your baby did not cause a delay! Signing builds the bridge to verbal language and tons of research supports that so I am glad you didn’t stop.

  8. says

    We have lots of delays with our daughter, so I know the worry you write about. It’s a long story, but bottom line she’s behind about a year. I try not to focus on how much she’s behind and spend my time day to day embracing the signs of break throughs that she’s achieving and overly praising her for. She has Occupational, Physical, & Developmental therapies weekly. I don’t know if she will ever catch up, but I know we’re doing what we can to help her.

    I agree with you that the best you can do is to stay calm and try not to worry. It will only enhance the delay when there’s an additional pressure to ‘perform’. So we try to keep it light and remind each other how far she’s come – not how far behind she is.