Waiting for your little one’s first word as other children chatter away can be gut-wrenching. Your doctor and health visitor tell you there’s no need to worry, while well-meaning friends try to reassure you with terrifying tales of little ones who couldn’t form proper sentences until they were teenagers.


“Jack didn’t babble much as baby. I spoke to our health visitor about it several times and was told not to worry, but as time has gone on we’re now waiting to start speech therapy,” says Laura Head, 21, from Bury St Edmunds, mum to Jack, 2, and Lola, 9 months. “Jack’s biggest problem is that his understanding is a thousand times better than his speech, which makes it very frustrating as I can give him any instruction and he follows it, but he can’t ask me for what he needs.”

A common problem

Speech problems and delay in children are actually quite common. It’s estimated that 20% of children go through a period of disjointed speech. “Short-lived periods of this disfluency are considered normal in early childhood, particularly when language is developing at such a rapid pace,” explains speech and language therapist Caroline Brodie. And although there are no official figures floating around, it’s far more common for boys to have some trouble with talking. Caroline says roughly four-fifths of her patients are boys, while only a fifth of her caseload is girls.

What should happen when?

Toddlers usually say their first word at around 12 months, and by 18 months to 2 years old, little ones will have between 30 and 50 words in their vocabulary, and may well be starting to put phrases together, for example, ‘Where mummy?’ By 2 to 2½ years, you can expect him to have between 150 and 300 words, and to be learning new ones quickly. Phrases will also start to be one, two or three words long. The understanding of two-part instructions, for example ‘Get your socks and put them in the basket’ comes later, around the 3-year mark. Bear in mind though, that this is a rough guide, and children can be within six months of these guidelines and still be considered as developing normally.

Does my child need help?

If your child isn’t speaking but points, and understands words and simple commands, he’s probably just a late bloomer. Its perfectly normal for toddlers under 3 to be difficult to understand at times, but the key thing is that he’s able to get his message across in some way, whether this is by showing you or repeating the word over again. It’s important to remember that around 60% of language delay cases will sort themselves out with no intervention. The problem could even be down to something as simple as your toddler having an older brother or sister. “Sometimes older siblings will start to speak for their little brothers or sisters, so the younger child finds he has less practice talking to his parents,” explains Caroline Brodie. “If you’ve got two, be aware of this happening and create lots of opportunities for him to have one-on-one time with you away from older siblings.”

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How do I get help?

If you are really worried that something’s wrong, the first port of call is your health visitor. Your little one’s lack of speech could be down to him suffering from a range of physical and developmental problems, including a learning difficulty (such as dyslexia), autism, childhood apraxia of speech (a nervous system disorder) or some form of neural impairment. If your child’s not yet two, don’t be surprised if you’re told that language delay is normal. But if you’re still worried your health visitor should take you seriously.

“As a guide, parents should ask for some guidance and help if, by 12 months, your tot is not responding to sounds such as the doorbell ringing, or his name being said, or if by 2 years he is not yet using any words and is having difficultly following commands,” says Caroline.

“Your health visitor or GP will be able to guide you through the referral process for a speech language therapist assessment – or try your local children’s centres, which are likely to have walk-in drop-in sessions for advice,” reassures Caroline. Check out www.dcsf.gov.uk/everychildmatters to find your local branch.

Mums’ stories

“My health visitor’s advice helped Poppy overcome her stutter”

“My daughter went through a phase of stuttering just after her second birthday, which at first I found very worrying. However my fantastic health visitor explained that, as Poppy was forward with her speech, she was probably trying to get the words out more quickly than she’d processed them. The health visitor told us not finish Poppy’s sentences, correct her or try to speed her up, but to let her take her time and finish what she was trying to say, then repeat what she’d said afterwards and answer accordingly. It worked and after a couple of months she stopped stuttering altogether.”

Jade Vasquez, 34, from Bristol, mum to Noah, 5, and Poppy, 2

“Max needed a hearing test”

“Max would make all the normal noises when he was a baby but never started to say the usual ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ words as expected. I was worried about this but whenever I mentioned my concerns to friends, I got comments such as, ‘Second children are always late in speaking,’ and, ‘His brother does all the talking for him and does things for him so he doesn’t need to speak as much.'

He was eventually sent to a speech therapist, who assessed him and he was referred for a hearing test. In the meantime they showed him Makaton, a type of sign language. Max is now having a grommet fitted in his ears as although he could hear and understand what was said to him, he wasn’t hearing everything crystal clearly so he was not picking up how to pronounce his words properly and hence not speaking very well.”

Teresa Lodge, 36, from Nailsea, mum to Jack, 5, and Max, 3

Dealing with a stutter

  • Stutters are fairly common until around the age of 3 as your child’s pronunciation of words is still developing at this stage.
  • There are some sounds, such as ‘s’ ‘sh ‘k’ and ‘g’, which are still difficult for some 3-4 year olds to say.
  • You can help by not speaking too quickly and leaving your child plenty of time to respond to you.
  • If you feel that the stutter is severe and impacting on your child’s ability to communicate, or mild but persistent (for example, lasting more than 2 to 3 months), seek advice as soon as possible.

10 ways YOU can encourage your child to chatter

1. Get down to your child’s level so you’re face to face when speaking. This will keep his attention on the conversation and encourage him to communicate.

2. Keep a running commentary about what you and your toddler are doing or looking at when speaking to him. This gives him a subject to talk about, and one he knows you can chat about too.

3. Sing songs together as babies love repetition and actions.

4. Use new words all the time to extend his vocabulary. For example, if he says ‘car’ you could say, ‘yes, a big car.’

5. Give lots of praise. Even if the word isn’t clear, encourage every effort.

6. Give it a second – if you say every word you’re expecting to hear from your toddler, he’ll learn that you speak for him

7. Point out words (such as names of toys or signs) when you’re out and about and try to get him to say them too.

8. Involve his older siblings, asking them to chat to him when they’re playing together.

9. Use resources like the Internet and TV to find programmes and games designed to help with developing speech. Watch and chat together.

10. Pass it on. If family members like granny know he’s struggling, they won’t undo your good work by speaking for him.

Did you know...


7% of 5 year olds starting school in 2007 had difficulties with speech and/or language