What You Need to Know About Speech Delay in Toddlers

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Every child is an individual when it comes to physical and mental development. That includes learning how to express oneself by using oral speech. 

You might compare your child’s development with others of the same age, wondering if your toddler has a speech delay. Don’t stress out if you feel that your toddler is behind for their age. 

I’ll explain the basics about language and speech development, the signs of speech delay in toddlers, and what to do if you suspect your little one is behind.

What Is the Difference Between Language and Speech?


Language is a term that describes tools to perform the act of exchanging information. It means to understand and to be understood through verbal, nonverbal, and written communication. Language is a symbolic, rule-governed system used to express a message. 

While speech requires the physical ability to talk, language can be words, but also gestures and body language. For example, nodding, wrinkling one’s nose, or pointing at something.

You might notice that your toddler learns to express themselves with nonverbal language long before they start speaking. You’ll see more and more facial expressions in the development of your child, for example, when they begin to eat food. The movements of the mouth, eyes, and nose indicate whether they like the new tastes or not. 

Body language, which also includes crying and laughing, is the most basic form of communication. It’s instinctive and, to a large extent, internationally uniform, especially with babies and toddlers. They deliver information of sadness, pain, needs, or joy. By these actions, our toddler “tells” us what they enjoy and what brings discomfort. 


Toddlers learn speech during a long and individual time frame. Speech means the verbal use of language—how we say sounds and words. It includes articulation, voice, and speech fluency. To identify speech delay or other problems, it’s useful to understand the distinguished meaning of these terms.


Articulation describes phonological skills. It means the ability to form speech sounds using the lips, mouth, and tongue.


Voice is produced by the lungs and the vocal cords in the voice box. It can have many shapes or forms apart from speech, such as crying, singing, and laughing. If your toddler shows difficulties with speaking, it might have possible physical causes. Your pediatrician will examine your toddler to exclude physical disabilities.

Speech Fluency 

As your toddler develops speech, they gradually learn how to use the voice generating muscles to produce understandable speech. If this process is disturbed, your child can develop a fluency disorder (stuttering). Stuttering includes repeating words and sounds, the disruption of speech flow, and the hesitation before and during speaking.

Language Without Speech

Language doesn’t necessarily rely on speech. You can have language without speech, for instance, if one is physically not able to produce or receive speech. The most known example of language without speech is sign language. American Sign Language (ASL) is a recognized language that uses visual signs to communicate. Like audible language, it consists of specific rules and symbols, which create a precise form of communication without using audible words.

Warning Signs for Speech Delay

Observing other children might give you certain expectations regarding the speech development of your toddler. Since each child is unique, physical and mental development can differ, and you shouldn’t get nervous too quickly.

Speech Delay or Late Talker?

There’s a good chance that your child is a late talker. Indicators are if your toddler is developing normal play, social thinking, and motor skills, but has a limited ability to express herself verbally at the age of 18 to 30 months.

How Can I Identify Speech Delay?

Identifying speech delay in toddlers early can help to manage the problem before it actually becomes one. Since there’s a lot of scientific research on this topic, you can be sure you’re not alone. 

Remember that every child develops skills at their own pace. Reasons why your child might be a little bit behind include premature birth. These children usually catch up by the age of two years. 

If you think your child doesn’t talk much compared to other children of the same age, start by monitoring and reflecting on your toddler as objectively as possible. You can compare your child’s development to milestone lists by official research institutions.

Milestones in Your Toddlers Language and Speech Development

Here’s a list of speech delay signs for you to compare your toddler’s development:

  • Up to seven months: Not babbling.
  • Seven to 12 months: Making only a few sounds, not waving hello or goodbye or pointing at things.
  • Seven months to two years: Not understanding what others say.
  • 12 to 18 months: Saying only a few words, preferring gestures over vocalizations to communicate, has trouble imitating sounds.
  • 18 months to two years: Not putting two words together.
  • By two years: Saying fewer than 50 words, can only imitate speech or actions and doesn’t use words or phrases of their own accord, can’t use speech to communicate more than immediate needs, can’t follow simple directions, has an unusual tone of voice (i.e., raspy or nasal).
  • Two to three years: Having trouble playing and talking with other children, no interest in drawing or looking at books.

Another warning sign could be if you feel like you can’t understand about 50 percent of your toddler’s speech by the age of two and 75 percent by the age of three years. By the age of four, your toddler should be mostly understood, also by people who don’t regularly see them.

What Can You Do If You Suspect Speech Delay in Your Toddler?

If you think your toddler’s speech development is delayed, you should talk to your pediatrician about it. Your doctor will most likely refer you to a specialist, a speech-language pathologist (SLP). 

You know your child best, so don’t hesitate if your intuition tells you that there might be a problem. Acting as early as possible can make a big difference for further speech development.

How Is Speech Delay Diagnosed?

Your SLP will check your toddler’s abilities regarding speech and language. This is done by standardized tests and includes milestone checklists as mentioned above. It’s helpful if you have reflected on these milestones beforehand. It makes it easier for you to give exact information to your doctor.

Furthermore, the specialist will check on your toddler’s skills of understanding (including hearing), expressing, articulation, and the physical oral-motor status.

What Happens If Speech Delay Has Been Diagnosed?

If your SLP has diagnosed a speech delay, they might recommend speech therapy for your toddler. During speech therapy, the SLP uses several different strategies to help your toddler. These include: 

  • Language intervention activities, such as playing, talking, use of pictures, objects, and books to interact with your child, and use of repetition exercises.
  • Articulation therapy to exercise the production of sounds, syllables, and sentences.
  • Oral-motor therapy to train physical aspects, such as facial massage, tongue, lip, and jaw exercises.

How Can I Help My Toddler Improve Their Speech?

As a parent or caregiver, you probably spend the majority of time with your toddler. You can have a significant impact on your toddler’s speech development by being attentive, patient, and interested. You can start to implement the following activities into your everyday life and try to make it fun for your toddler:

  • Talk, sing and play with your toddler regularly.
  • Read stories to your toddler whenever you can; this exposes your child to a larger vocabulary.
  • Listen carefully to what your toddler says and respond accordingly.
  • Describe everyday things that you do together.
  • Let your child interact with other children of the same and different ages.
  • Take your time when speaking and pronounce words clearly and correctly; let your child look at your mouth while you pronounce words and make eye contact.
  • Avoid non-stop correcting your child.
  • If your child stutters be extra patient, show them that you’ll happily give them the needed time, don’t be annoyed, and don’t interrupt.
  • Include specific speech exercises into your routine; you can ask your SLP for at-home-exercises.

Time to Talk

Realizing that your toddler suffers from speech delay can be frightening. Still, it’s not a reason to be, as long as you react early. Don’t wait if you feel there is something wrong with the speech—and language—development of your child; a parent’s intuition is mostly a good indicator of a child’s problem.

Howard is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice. When he isn't spending time with his wife, Kristin, or his two children, he can often be found running around on the tennis court.