A language delay is a communication disorder. Your child may have a language delay if they don’t meet the language developmental milestones for their age. Their language abilities may be developing at a slower rate than normal. They may have trouble expressing themselves or understanding others. Their delay may involve a combination of hearing, speech, and cognitive impairments.
Language delays are quite common. According to the University of Michigan Health System, delayed speech or language development affects 5 to 10 percent of preschool-aged children.
A language delay can be receptive, expressive, or a combination of both. A receptive language problem happens when your child has difficulty understanding language. An expressive language disorder happens when your child has difficulty expressing themselves.
If your child has a language delay, they won’t reach language milestones at the normal age. Their specific symptoms and the milestones they miss will depend on their age and the nature of their language delay.
Common symptoms of language delay include:
- not babbling by the age of 15 months
- not talking by the age of 2
- an inability to speak in short sentences by the age of 3
- difficulty following directions
- poor pronunciation or articulation
- difficulty putting words together in a sentence
- leaving words out of a sentence
Language delays in children have many possible causes. In some instances, more than one factor contributes to a language delay. Some common causes include the following:
- It’s common for children who have a hearing impairment to have a language impairment as well. If they can’t hear language, learning to communicate can be difficult.
- While not all children with autism have language delays, autism frequently affects communication.
- A variety of intellectual disabilities can cause language delays. For instance, dyslexia and other learning disabilities lead to language delays in some cases.
- Several psychosocial issues can cause language delays. For example, severe neglect can lead to problems with language development.
According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, potential risk factors for speech and language problems include:
- being male
- being born prematurely
- having a low birth weight
- having a family history of speech or language problems
- having parents with lower levels of education
Your child’s doctor will conduct a physical exam and take their medical history to diagnose a language delay. They may ask about language milestones that your child has already met or missed. They may also order other tests or refer your child to another health professional.
For example, your child’s doctor may recommend a hearing exam to determine if your child has a hearing impairment. Your child may have hearing problems that have been overlooked, especially if they’re very young. A language therapist or neuropsychologist may also administer standardized language assessments to learn whether your child has a language delay.
After diagnosis, your child’s treatment plan will likely involve speech and language therapy. A licensed speech-language pathologist will complete an evaluation to determine the types of problems that your child is facing. This will help them develop and implement a treatment plan.
If your child has underlying health conditions, their doctor may recommend other treatments as well. For example, they may recommend a cochlear implant to treat a hearing impairment.
Your child’s outlook will vary, depending on their specific condition and age. Some children are able to catch up to their peers and meet future language milestones. Other children have more difficulty overcoming language delays and may face problems in later childhood. Some children with language delays have difficulty reading or behavior problems as a result of their delayed language development.
If your child is diagnosed with a language delay, it’s important to start treatment quickly. Early treatment can help prevent other problems from developing. For example, learning, social, and emotional problems can arise from a language delay.
It may not be possible to prevent all language delays. For example, hearing impairments and learning disabilities may not always be preventable. Follow these tips to encourage language development in your child:
- Talk to your child from the time they’re born.
- Respond to your child’s babbling when they’re a baby.
- Sing to your child, even when they’re a baby.
- Read aloud to your child.
- Answer your child’s questions.