Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Lano, M.S., CCC-SLP
on January 15, 2022
If you’re still waiting to hear your little one’s first words, here’s what you should know about so-called "late talkers" and speech or language delays, as well as signs of a possible speech or language problem.
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In This Article
- What is a late talker?
- How to help a late talker develop speech
- Talking to your doctor about speech or language delays
As with everything in child development, kids learn to talk at different rates. While most tots tend to be able to say a fewfirst words around the one-year mark, not all do — there’s a wide range of normal when it comes to a toddler's language and communication skills.
As a parent, it’s equally normal to wonder if you should be concerned about your child's language development. Before you start asking around and comparing your little one to others his age, here’s what you should know about so-called "late talkers," or speech or language delays, as well as signs of a possible speech or language problem.
What is a late talker?
A toddler between 18 and 30 months old who isn’t speaking much or at all but is otherwise developing normally may be considered a late talker.It’s estimated that up to 17.5 percent of kids up to age 3 who take longer may have a speech or language delay.
Late talkers might bepacing behind ontoddler speech milestonesbut are still able to understand much of what they hear (which is known as receptive language),use gestures to communicate(such aswaving or pointing) or continue to learn new words, just more slowly.
A late talker might have one or both of the following:
- Speech delay: Speech refers to the words we say and how we say them.Children with speech delays might have trouble articulating words and be difficult to understand.
- Language delay: Language refers to the way we communicate with others.Children with language delays might be able to say some words, but only have a few words or be unable to put more than two words together.
A variety of factors might contribute to a toddler's late-blooming speech:
- Birth stats. Babies who were born underweight or before 37 weeks are at an increased risk of becoming late talkers as toddlers.
- Twinning. Twins are more likely to be late talkers than singletons.
- Family history. Late talkers tend to run in the family.
- Other interests. Sometimes toddlers who develop early in other areas (likeclimbing and jumping) tend to master language more slowly because they’re so busy concentrating on those other skills.
- Lack of necessity. Children whose parents (or older siblings) are quick to anticipate their needs might take longer to speak up — because there is less of a need to.
- History of hearing loss or ear infections. Past infections or difficulty hearing can slow speech development.
How to help a late talker develop speech
The good news: Up to 70 percent of late talkers tend to catch up in language development without intervention by the time they start school. In the meantime, try these steps to help bring out your child’s inner chatterbox:
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- Talk, talk, talk.Not surehow to talk to your tot? Narrate what you’re doing, tell them about your day, label items around the house, read books — the more your toddler is exposed to language, the more words he’ll eventually pick up.
- Expand your child’s vocabulary.Add to words your tot does say — if he says "ball," comment back by saying "red ball" or "throw ball" to build on his speech.
- Ask the right kinds of questions.Start with questions that will elicit a "yes" or "no" from your toddler, like "Do you want a snack?" and work your way up to questions that include a choice, like "Do you want an avocado or banana?"
- Try sign language.Research showssign languagemay help your little one with language development.
- Sign up for day care or classes.Toddlers who play in language-rich environments and socialize with other kids their age are more likely to pick up language skills.
- Encourage imitation skills. Incite your tot to copy motor skills such as clapping, jumping and blowing kisses, then work your way up to imitating sounds and then words.
Talking to your doctor about speech or language delays
There's a range of normal when it comes to a child's development, and a speech or language delay refers to a toddler whose speech is coming along a bit more slowly. But there's a difference between late talking and a true speech or language disorder. The "wait and see" approach may not be the best course of action.
Remember: You know your child best.If you have any concerns about your child's development,consult your doctor, especially if you notice the following:
- By 18 months: Your child doesn’t communicate nonverbally bypointing at objects, doesn't gain new words or doesn't have at least six words
- By 2 years: Your child doesn't use two-word phrasesor is unable tofollow simple instructions
- By 3 years: Your child has unclear speech, doesn't speak in sentencesordoesn't understand simple instructions
Other signs to watch out for besides late talking include:
- Loss of sounds or words your child previously said
- Difficulty understanding language or following directions
- Trouble imitating sounds or mouth movements
- Lack of gestures like pointing or reaching for items of interest
- Decreased eye contact and social skills
- Chewing, drinking, swallowing and overall feeding difficulties
Your child's pediatrician may refer you to an audiologist for a hearing test or speech-language pathologist (SLP) for an evaluation.These specialists assess how well your toddler understands language and communicates with both verbal speech as well as gestures.
From there, an SLP might recommend speech therapy or make recommendations as to what else you can do at home to encourage your toddler's language development.If needed, an SLP canalso refer you to an early intervention program. With early intervention, the sooner you get your child the care he needs, the better the outcome.
From the What to Expect editorial team andHeidi Murkoff,author ofWhat to Expect When You're Expecting. What to Expect follows strict reporting guidelines and uses only credible sources, such as peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and highly respected health organizations. Learn how we keep our content accurate and up-to-date by reading ourmedical review and editorial policy.
- What to Expect the First Year,3rd edition, Heidi Murkoff.
- What to Expect the Second Year, Heidi Murkoff.
- WhatToExpect.com, Baby Sign Language: When, How and Why to Try It, February 2020.
- American Academy of Family Physicians, Speech and Language Delay, May 2020.
- American Academy of Pediatrics, Language Delays in Toddlers: Information for Parents, April 2021.
- American Academy of Pediatrics, What are the Early Signs of Autism? April 2021.
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Activities to Encourage Speech and Language Development, 2021.
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Birth to One Year, 2021.
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Late Blooming or Language Problem?, 2021
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Late Language Emergence, 2021
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Speech and Language Disorders, 2021
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Who Are Speech-Language Pathologists, and What Do They Do?
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, What Is Speech? What Is Language?
- Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development, June 2000.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?, March 2020.
- Children’s Minnesota, Receptive and Expressive Language, 2021.
- KidsHealth From Nemours, Delayed Speech or Language Development, November 2019.
- Mayo Clinic, Autism Spectrum Disorder, January 2018.
- Nationwide Children’s, Teaching Kids a Second Language: Can It Cause a Speech Delay?, December 2017
- National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Enhancing Early Communication through Infant Sign Training, 2007.
- National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says, 2013.
- National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Spectrum Disorder, 2021.
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Boys tend to develop language skills a little later than girls, but in general, kids may be labeled "late-talking children" if they speak less than 10 words by the age of 18 to 20 months, or fewer than 50 words by 21 to 30 months of age.At what age is a toddler considered a late talker? ›
Who is a “Late Talker”? A “Late Talker” is a toddler (between 18-30 months) who has good understanding of language, typically developing play skills, motor skills, thinking skills, and social skills, but has a limited spoken vocabulary for his or her age.When should you worry about late talkers? ›
A late-talker has mastered 50 words or less by age 2, and can't yet combine words, such as “more juice”. Reach out to your pediatrician or a pediatric speech-language pathologist if your child is exhibiting at least three of the following signs: Hearing issues or frequent ear infections.Can a toddler be just a late talker? ›
What is a late talker? A toddler between 18 and 30 months old who isn't speaking much or at all but is otherwise developing normally may be considered a late talker. It's estimated that up to 17.5 percent of kids up to age 3 who take longer may have a speech or language delay.Is late talker autism? ›
Not necessarily. While speech delays, language delays, and learning differences are often a hallmark of ASD, a speech delay by itself does not mean a child has autism. In fact, there are key differences between communication delays caused by autism and other types of speech-language disorders.What is late talking a symptom of? ›
And of course, late talking is one of the primary symptoms of autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and for intellectual disability (which was formally known as mental retardation).Do late talkers eventually catch up? ›
What are the Outcomes of Late Talking in Children? An ASHA study on Late Language Emergence mentions that by late preschool and school-age, about 50 to 70 percent of late talkers are able to catch up and show normal language development.Can late talkers be gifted? ›
It's believed that a segment of children diagnosed as late-talkers outgrow this developmental delay and prove themselves to be gifted and exceptionally bright. These children would qualify as candidates for being said to have Einstein syndrome.What is a late talker personality? ›
Late talkers typically appear to have good understanding of what is said to them, engage in appropriate, but often quiet play, and interact well with others using gestures.Can a child have speech delay and not be autistic? ›
Speech delays are very common among children with autism. But they are also common in children without autism. There are, however, very real differences between speech delays in autism and other types of delays. In many cases, these differences are noticeable even to non-experts.
A child with a speech delay tends to naturally use body language and eye contact. Autistic children, on the other hand, may have trouble with social interaction, play skills, communication, and behavior. Children with autism may prefer to be alone.What are late talker issues? ›
Children who are late talkers will often have trouble with spoken or expressive language. While they understand instructions, and can point at objects etc, they may not be able to verbally express their wants and needs, or perhaps are less clear in producing common speech sounds.Why is my 2 year old not talking but babbling? ›
There are several reasons why a 2-year-old is babbling but not talking. Sometimes, it may be because they are shy or introverted. It can also be related to hearing loss or other developmental delays. In most cases, however, the cause is unknown.Do ADHD toddlers talk late? ›
A delay in speech or language is one of the earliest signs we have for kids that do go on to get a diagnosis of ADHD later in childhood. In this 2012 study, researchers found that two-thirds of the elementary-aged kids with ADHD had a speech or language delay at 18 months.What does speech delay look like in a 2 year old? ›
by 2 years: can only imitate speech or actions and doesn't produce words or phrases spontaneously. by 2 years: says only some sounds or words repeatedly and can't use oral language to communicate more than their immediate needs. by 2 years: can't follow simple directions.What does autistic speech sound like? ›
When children with autism speak they sound different from most people. Their speech usually follows one of several characteristic patterns: Some talk in a flat, toneless voice, others in an exaggerated, hyper way that doesn't match the subject matter.What are warning signs of autism? ›
- Avoids or does not keep eye contact.
- Does not respond to name by 9 months of age.
- Does not show facial expressions like happy, sad, angry, and surprised by 9 months of age.
- Does not play simple interactive games like pat-a-cake by 12 months of age.
The most common causes of speech delay include: Hearing loss. Slow development. Intellectual disability.Why is my 3 year old not talking? ›
So if your toddler is 2 or 3 years old and isn't yet talking, it's vital to go ahead and speak with their pediatrician, or with a speech-language pathologist. They will likely recommend a speech evaluation in order to assess your child's current abilities. Early intervention is so important in these situations.Is late talking a disability? ›
Late talkers differ from toddlers with language development disorders and disabilities in the sense that their only characteristic is that they experience limited expressive vocabulary for their age, as opposed to a lack of receptive language or cognitive abilities.
Most kids have temper tantrums at some point, but researchers at Northwestern University have found toddlers with delayed speech are twice as likely to have severe, frequent tantrums, and are encouraging families to seek help sooner rather than later.Can poor parenting cause speech delay? ›
Delays can also be caused by neglect, abuse, or an event or circumstance that was really disruptive to development. These are atypical scenarios though that we rarely encounter. For the average parent doing their best, you can rest assured that your child's speech or language delay is definitely not your fault.Can watching too much TV cause speech delay? ›
Studies report a link between TV and language development in young children. The more time kids spend watching television, the more slowly they learn to talk.Are boys more likely to be late talkers? ›
Statistics Warn Us That Boys are Usually Slower to Talk.
Children naturally vary in the time taken to reach language milestones, and gender has been shown to be partly responsible for this variability.
- Model good speech, but don't criticize your child's speech if it is not perfectly clear.
- Imitate the sounds and words your child makes.
- Speak slowly so that a child can understand each part of a word.
Einstein, a certified genius, was also a late talker (according to some biographers). He didn't speak full sentences until he was 5 years old. Einstein's speech delay clearly wasn't an impediment to his intellectual prowess and awe-inspiring accomplishments.What is the difference between a late talker and a speech delay? ›
A late talker is a toddler between the ages of 18 to 30 months, who is developing normal play, social, thinking and motor skills, but who is limited in spoken vocabulary for their age. Toddlers who are late talkers do not necessarily have speech delay. Most late talkers have difficulty with expressive language.How common is speech delay? ›
Delays in language are the most common types of developmental delay. One out of 5 children will learn to talk or use words later than other children their age. Some children will also show behavioral problems because they are frustrated when they can't express what they need or want.Why is my toddler singing but not talking? ›
When children recite ABC, count numbers, or sing songs, the main language function is to entertain themselves. They aren't saying these words for any other purpose. This means that these words will only be used in these contexts. The child simply does not know that words can be used to communicate.What age autism starts talking? ›
Some children with autism may start talking at 12-16 months. Most don't start talking until later. Some will start talking between the ages of 2-3 years. Other children talk even later, and some children never learn to talk.
It may surprise some to learn that the odds of the late talking being ASD—or some other dire condition is much less than 50-50.Do most kids with autism talk? ›
Because autism spectrum disorder varies in severity with each child, there is no hard and fast rule. It is not uncommon for children with ASD to begin developing speech in the same manner as typical children, as well as to regress in speech and language comprehension around two years old.Will my 3 year old ever talk? ›
By age 3, a toddler's vocabulary usually is more than 200 words. Kids can string together 2- or 3-word sentences. They can talk with you in a conversation that has at least 2 back-and-forth exchanges. Other people can understand your toddler most of the time.How can I help my 2 year old talk? ›
Recite nursery rhymes and sing songs. Play rhymes, stories and songs in the car. Copy your child's attempts at words to encourage two-way conversation. Also build on your child's words – for example, when your toddler says 'train', you can say, 'Yes, it's a big red train'.What is normal speech for a 2 year old? ›
At 24 months of age, your 2 year old should meet the following speech milestones: Be able to say sentences with at least two to four words. Use and understand at least 50 words. Follow simple instructions.Why does my 2.5 year old talk gibberish? ›
Babies usually begin talking in jargon before their first birthday. By the time children are 2 years old, speech therapists look for them to use more real words than jargon. If you have a hard time understanding your toddler, it is because your child is still learning to pronounce different sounds.Is it normal for a 2 year old not to talk much? ›
Children learn the language at different rates, so there is no one answer to this question. Some two-year-olds may only be saying a few words, while others may be able to repeat words and phrases. However, most experts agree that children should have a vocabulary of about 50 words by the time they reach two years old.Why is my toddler not talking at 3? ›
So if your toddler is 2 or 3 years old and isn't yet talking, it's vital to go ahead and speak with their pediatrician, or with a speech-language pathologist. They will likely recommend a speech evaluation in order to assess your child's current abilities. Early intervention is so important in these situations.Should a 2 year old be talking properly? ›
Between the ages of 2 and 3, most children: Speak in two- and three-word phrases or sentences. Use at least 200 words and as many as 1,000 words. Ask questions that start with who, what, where or why, such as "Where is mommy?"Can too much TV cause speech delay? ›
Studies report a link between TV and language development in young children. The more time kids spend watching television, the more slowly they learn to talk.
It is true that boys produce their first words and sentences later than girls. However, these differences are only in terms of a matter of a few months. There is a normal range within which children acquire certain language milestones.Why is my 3 year old not talking but babbling? ›
Children develop at their own rate. If your child has a speech delay, it doesn't always mean something is wrong. You may simply have a late bloomer who'll be talking your ear off in no time. A speech delay can also be due to hearing loss or underlying neurological or developmental disorders."Can a child with speech delays catch up? ›
Some children with expressive language delay "catch up" during the preschool years ("late bloomers"), whereas others have persistent delay (see 'Natural history' below). Early evaluation can help to correctly identify late-talking children who will benefit from intervention and/or additional evaluation.What can help late talkers? ›
- Focus on communication. Talk with your baby, sing, and encourage imitation of sounds and gestures.
- Read to your child. Start reading when your child is a baby. ...
- Use everyday situations. To build on your child's speech and language, talk your way through the day.
The age at which kids begin talking typically ranges from 6 to 18 months. In general, there is no need to worry if your toddler isn't talking and seems "behind"—even if they are at the older end of that range.What words should a 2 year old say? ›