Study: Toddlers Who Are Slow to Talk Still Develop Normally

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A toddler’s first years are paved with milestones — the first smile, the first step and perhaps most importantly, the first word — all indicators of how well an infant is developing. But the latest research suggests that parents need not worry so much about delays in speech; when baby’s first word comes late, it doesn’t necessarily spell trouble.

Reporting in the journal Pediatrics, researchers in Australia say that children who were late-talkers at age 2 did not show any increased risk of behavioral or emotional problems throughout their childhood or adolescence, compared with children whose language development followed what experts consider a “normal” trajectory.

Led by Andrew Whitehouse, a psychologist at Telethon Institute for Child Health research at the University of Western Australia, the scientists studied more than 1,300 2-year-olds and followed them until they were 17 years old. At age 2, the team measured the toddlers’ language ability with a standard test of vocabulary; those who fell below the 15th percentile for their age and gender were considered to be late-talkers.

Whitehouse also evaluated the children’s behavioral development by asking parents to fill out questionnaires at five different points during childhood. The surveys asked about the youngsters’ emotional states and their responses to difficult situations, such as whether they lashed out or internalized their feelings when faced with frustration.

The scientists found that while late-talking children were more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems at age 2, compared with other children, “these problems are not enduring,” Whitehouse said in an email. “They were at no more risk for these problems at later ages.”

He believes that most of the behavioral problems among the 2-year-olds were due to their frustrations with not being able to communicate their feelings fully, and are not necessarily signs of more serious psychosocial issues such as depression or attention deficit disorder.

That should come as a relief to parents who are concerned that their child does not meet specific language milestones set by pediatricians. When toddlers are late to begin speaking, many parents try to intervene with therapy or attempt to push their children to talk more, but the new study suggests that in most cases, that may not be needed. “Parents should not be overly concerned that late-talking at age 2 years will result in enduring language and psychological difficulties for the child,” says Whitehouse. “There is good evidence that most late-talking children will ‘catch up’ to the language skills of other children.”

That doesn’t mean that all language delays should be dismissed, however. Some kids may simply be getting a slower start, but if toddlers don’t start speaking by the time they enter school, experts say that’s probably a sign that they may need some type of intervention to prevent future developmental issues.

The best way to ensure that children hit normal language milestones is to engage with them and stimulate them by introducing them to new things in their environment, Whitehouse says. “Get down on the floor and play with [your] child, talk with them, read to them and interact with them at their level,” he says.