One of our favorite photos is of me propping a newborn Claire on my lap as my mother reads her a book. Even at that young age, she is clearly focusing on the book. She’s always been interested in books and, as academic parents, we assumed she would be word-focused like us — whether it be the written or spoken word. She walked fairly early at barely 11 months, and we were sure she would talk early, too.
But at 21 months, although she signs a lot, she has few spoken words. And I am anxious about it, even though everyone tells me not to be. Here are some things I’ve learned:
- It is very hard not to compare your child with other children. When Claire was just about a year, we were at a mom’s group gathering and one mom mentioned that her baby would stand in her crib and shout, “Mama!” I felt my first shot of angst. Claire had not yet said “mama.” Even now, she says “mama” often when I’m out and she wants me, but rarely says it directly to me. Children develop at different paces, I know this. But it’s harder to accept when you feel like your child is “behind.”
- Start early. Our pediatrician suggested that if Claire was still not talking much by 15 months we should start the process for seeing a Speech and Language Pathologist (SPL). At 16 months we had a phone evaluation and were sent to a class called Encouraging First Words. In the class, the SPL told us they would call us in about 2 months because many babies have a language explosion around 18 months. When they called around that time and she had not had The Explosion, we were referred to audiology for a hearing test. We just went to that appointment yesterday. The next step (after audiology sends their report) is to be booked for an actual assessment with an SPL. I suspect Claire will be close to two by the time that happens. Many people have stories of a family member who spoke late and had no other development issues. Waiting and crossing our fingers and hoping all is well, however, seems like too big a gamble to me. And the SPL said as much at the class, noting that many people wait until kindergarten to really address a speech delay, by which time bad habits may have set in. If by two or three Claire is talking like crazy, then no harm done in having gone through these steps — but if she is not talking, then I will be very happy to have jumped through all these hoops now and have specialists in place.
- Keep signing. I really have no idea what we would have done without signing. Even just knowing if Claire is hungry or thirsty is priceless, but there are many other useful things she can sign to help us understand her needs and wants. A common misconception is that signing delays speech, but the SPL assured us that this is not the case at all. Several parents in the class noted that their children were biting and she suggested that this was from frustration at not being able to communicate. Signing alleviates this frustration, and, when combined with spoken words, actually helps to develop spoken language. There are lots of great videos on YouTube to help you teach your child to sign.
- It is super annoying when people say, “Oh just wait: once she starts talking, you’ll wish she never had.” Uh, no. I cannot wait to be able to truly communicate with my child. I will never tire of hearing her voice (unless maybe she’s 16 and screaming ‘you’re ruining my life!’ when I refuse to let her drive to Burning Man with her boyfriend).