Is it a language delay or shyness?

Did your toddler run all the way across the park today? Maybe they're a future marathon runner. Did they give that blinding grin to every other shopper in the supermarket? Better watch out, they might be one of those kids who always wants to have huge birthday parties.

Every day, the parents of babies and toddlers search their children’s faces for evidence of what they’ll be like in the future, and some of the predictions they make might even come true. When it comes to language, though, it can be a little harder to figure out. Chatty children might just be excited about their new language skills, and may calm down their mile-a-minute talking as they get older. On the other hand, children who don’t talk as much could be sitting back and observing the world quietly by choice, but it’s also always possible that they might be having trouble speaking.

Learning to speak is one of the biggest and most important jobs children have as they grow, and since language development happens at different rates in different children, it’s hard to tell whether any particular child is experiencing a language delay, or just learning at their own pace. In general, pediatricians start to be concerned when children are missing skills that 90% of children their own age are already doing.

Language delay is more common than you might think. According to a study published in Pediatrics in 2016, as many as 10 to 15% of two-year-olds have language delays. Most children catch up, though, and by three years old, only 5% of children were still delayed. Language delays and impairments can happen for many reasons, and figuring out what’s causing one helps to make sure children get the help they need. Toddlers with language delays are generally first tested for hearing, and then for other potential causes like developmental disorders, metabolic conditions, and even toxicological conditions like lead poisoning.

Ways to encourage speech and language development

Parents can help encourage their children’s language development by bringing more language into their lives in many different ways. Reading books and singing songs together can help to increase the number of different words and concepts in children’s lives, for example. Making sure to have lots of back-and-forth conversations gives children the chance to use the skills they’re learning, and to work on social development as well as language. And narrating the things parents and children do together in their day-to-day lives helps children put words and language into context, as well as expands vocabulary and syntax.

What shyness looks like

Studies of children who are late to speak, but have no easily-identifiable reason for a speech delay, show that they’re often at the same level for receptive language, or understanding what’s said to and around them, than their motormouth peers. Shy children may still benefit from being encouraged to speak a little more by parents or caregivers, partially because it’s never too early to introduce the idea that practice makes perfect, and partially because encouraging talking, instead of just listening and learning, can be a great way to increase social development, as well as language. Shyness itself isn’t a sign of a problem with speech, though.

What language delays look like

If a child doesn’t seem to understand what’s being said around them at an age-appropriate level, there’s a good chance they might be having some trouble with language – specifically, receptive language. It can be a cause for concern if a one-year-old child doesn’t pay attention to speech, follow simple, one-step commands or requests, or understand what “no” means. By 18 months, it may be cause for concern if a child can’t point to objects and people when they’re named.

Another sign to look out for is lack of engagement with you. That could mean not seeming to notice if you are or aren’t in a room, or it could be a more subtle reluctance to have back-and-forth interactions with you or other caregivers. Regression, or seeming to lose skills or words they already knew may also be a sign of a problem.

Finally, while there’s a wide range of “normal” development for this age range, at this point, most children have started to take some steps in the direction of expressive language – that is, language that’s meant to express a feeling or a desire. This might be happening in the form of a baby-talk version of real words, through gesturing and grunting, or even in single real words and phrases. What these different forms and stages of expressive language development mean is that a young child understands the way that language is used to communicate, and that they are working on developing the ability to use language this way, too.

If you do think your child’s speech might be delayed, it’s a good idea to get them evaluated by a pediatrician. Early evaluation and Early Intervention services make a huge difference in terms of outcome. If you have more questions about speech delays, your child’s next well-child visit could be a great time to bring them up.

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