I Can’t Understand My Child’s Speech. What Should I Do?

01/10/2023

Do you have a child who is difficult to understand? Does your child get frustrated when talking? Have you wondered if your child is on track with the sounds he or she can produce? At one time or another, a child’s speech can be hard to understand. But when should you worry?

Knowing what’s normal and what’s not in speech sound development can help determine if you should be concerned or if your child is on schedule. This article will describe the current milestones for speech sound development and intelligibility so you can monitor your child at home, incorporate strategies to encourage sound development, and know what to do if you suspect a delay.

Normal speech sound development in children follows a predictable pattern, but there is a lot of variation in the timing of when different sounds are acquired. Some sounds are easier for children to produce than others, and some sounds may take longer to develop.

Normal Speech Sound Development

Speech sounds develop from the time a child begins babbling and continue to do so until mid-elementary school. The ability to control and coordinate the tongue, lips, jaw, and airflow for speech is a complicated motor task that takes time to master. As a child is learning to produce new sounds, his or her speech production may include omissions of sounds, substitutions of earlier developing sounds for later developing ones, or productions that are inconsistent across attempts.

From birth, your child has been learning to talk. Babies produce vowels first, which is called cooing. They communicate by using vocalizations such as laughing, giggling, crying, and fussing. Young babies will try to imitate mouth movements and sounds.

By 6 months of age, most babies are beginning to use consonants with their vowels, referred to as babbling. The earliest sounds to listen for include: b, m, d, and g. These sounds are the easiest to see when produced (babies can imitate easier) and are the easiest to say (require less oral motor precision).

Between the onset of babbling and the first word, your child is practicing sounds, listening to you, imitating speech sounds, and learning the cadence and intonation of speech. You will hear a lot of sound practice at this stage, even when your child is playing alone.

Between 10 and 12 months of age, you will hear what is called jargon. Jargon is long chains of babbled sounds, which include differing intonation and sounds like talking. Your child may talk to toys and attempt to sing along to music. Children this age often sound like they are close to saying their first word. They will frequently babble “mama” or “dada,” but without meaning. Parents encourage their child’s first word by repeating it often to their child in the correct context (giving meaning to their babbling).

In general, children begin to produce their first words around 12 to 15 months of age. Children’s first words will be things in their environment and actions they do often. Animal sounds, counting, and letter names are considered words as well. Children produce their first words with the sounds that they have been using in their babbling. You will hear one-syllable words and repetition of syllables within words. Common first words include mama, dada, kitty, doggie, up, go, night-night, and moo.

By 2 years of age, many children go through a communication “growth spurt.” Children this age are often more difficult to understand as they simultaneously improve their oral motor skills, increase their vocabulary, and begin to put words together. By 2 years of age, most children can produce various consonant sounds, including those at the beginning, middle, and end of words. They are typically putting two words together and can be understood about 50% of the time by unfamiliar people. Two-year-olds typically use the following consonants: b, n, m, p, h, w, d. Errors are common with later developing sounds such as “l” and “r.” For example, your child may say “lellow” for “yellow” and “wabbit” for “rabbit.”

I Can’t Understand My Child’s Speech. What Should I Do?

In general, children begin to produce their first words around 12 to 15 months of age. Children’s first words will be things in their environment and actions they do often.

By 3 years of age, children continue their vocabulary and sound production development. Children are putting four to five words together and can be understood by others at least 75% of the time. The sounds g, k, f, t, ng, and y are acquired by most children in their 3rd year. Children this age may still be making errors such as “tat” for “cat” and “bish” for “fish.”

By 4 to 5 years of age, the sounds v, j, s, ch, l, sh, and z will be acquired. Speech is 90 to 100% intelligible to most people, however, the child will likely say some sounds and words differently than adults. Children this age may still be making errors such as “top” for “shop” and “tair” for “chair.” Most children’s speech is very adult-like at this age as they are speaking in sentences and are easily understood.

Of course, not all children meet the above milestones at the same time. So with all this in mind, when should you be concerned?

Below are some guidelines to determine if it is time to seek help for your child.

Signs of Delay by Age 

  • 8-10 months: not babbling with consonants; not attempting to imitate sounds
  • 15 months: not producing their first word; not using jargon
  • 24 months: not putting two words together; not being understood 50% of the time; not using consonants in the beginning, middle, and ends of words
  • 36 months: not putting three words together; not being understood 75% of the time; not using a variety of consonant sounds
  • 4-5 years: not producing the majority of consonants correctly in conversational speech; not being understood 90% of the time with some minor sound and word production errors
  • 6-7 years: not producing all sounds correctly in conversational speech; not being understood 100% of the time with possible trouble saying later-developing sounds and multisyllabic words

Additional Signs Your Child May Need Help

  • Sounds very immature compared to their peers
  • Uses only a few speech sounds 
  • Uses gestures instead of speech to communicate
  • Does not pronounce words the way you would expect for their age
  • Gets frustrated or upset when talking or when you do not understand them
  • Conversational speech is very difficult to understand
  • Are teased by peers when speaking
  • A regression in speaking

Tips to Communicate Effectively with Your Child

It can be challenging to understand and communicate with your child at times, especially as they grow and develop their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Here are a few tips that may help you better understand and connect with your child:

  • Pay attention to your child’s nonverbal cues: Children often communicate through their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Paying attention to these cues can give you important clues about how your child is feeling and what they are trying to tell you.
  • Listen actively: When your child is talking to you, try to give them your full attention. Avoid interrupting or finishing their sentences for them, and try to listen to the message of what they are saying.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Instead of asking yes or no questions, try asking open-ended questions that encourage your child to explain or elaborate on their thoughts and feelings.
  • Validate their feelings: It is important to let your child know that their feelings are valid, even if you do not necessarily agree with them. This can help your child feel heard and understood.
  • Take a break if needed: If you are feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, it can be helpful to take a break and come back to the conversation later.

Strategies to Use When You Do Not Understand your Child

In spite of your best efforts to communicate with your child, you still may not know what they are trying to say. When this happens, here are some tips to figure it out:

  • Let your child know that you do not understand what they are saying, but that you want to know!
  • Ask your child to show you what they are talking about. For example, ask your child to point to the thing that they want.
  • Give a choice to help narrow things down. If she is looking intently at the fruit bowl, but you are not sure exactly what she wants, you can say, “I think you either want a banana or an apple!” Hold out the two options and let her pick.
  • Ask simple questions to get more information about what your child is trying to say. For example, “Are you telling me about something that happened today? Did it happen at school?”
  • Encourage your child to talk slowly. Let your child know you are listening and that they can have as much time as they like to tell you.
  • Try to guess based on the context of the situation or what has happened recently in your child’s life.
  • Be careful not to show frustration, but instead say something encouraging to your child, such as “I am sorry that I don’t understand you right now.”

If you do figure out what they are trying to say, repeat it back to them. Hearing the correct production of sounds from you will help your child to learn.

Supporting Speech and Language Development at Home

A parent’s job is to provide a rich linguistic environment in which children can best learn. Besides saying mama and dada, first words are often animal sounds (moo, woof), transportation sounds (honk-honk, choo-choo), exclamatory words (uh-oh, shhhh!), actions (up, go), foods (juice, cracker). Toys and activities that encourage making sounds and saying words are great choices to encourage talking: books, barns, baby dolls, vehicles, songs, nursery rhymes, and play sets that encourage pretend play.

Research shows that speaking to your child using complete sentences in a normal conversation encourages development. Narrating throughout daily routines such as driving, mealtime, bathtime, and going out in the community are all great times to model language and expose your child to vocabulary that is necessary for language development.

Mealtime and bathtime are great moments to incorporate sound play as your child can see and hear you better than when they are active and running around. When you are on their level, you can demonstrate correct pronunciation. Your child can see you produce the sounds correctly and hear you clearly because you are close, further encouraging speech imitation.

Reading books together is one of the best ways to encourage speech sound production. Point out sounds and letters when reading books together and have your child watch you say the words and sounds. Do not put a lot of pressure on your child to repeat sounds or words as your child is getting input just by you modeling the sounds. Remember to keep talking to your child no matter if they are speaking or not. Again, be cautious about requiring your child to repeat after you, and do not show frustration if they still cannot repeat the sound or word correctly.

Professionals to Contact

If you feel you need to seek help for your child, the first step is to rule out hearing impairment. Have your child’s hearing screened to make sure that their hearing is normal since abnormal hearing can affect speech development as well as word pronunciation. Ear infections, especially chronic infections, can also affect your child’s hearing.

Contact your child’s pediatrician who will screen your child’s hearing and make a referral to an audiologist, if necessary. Ideally, an audiologist should test a child’s hearing whenever there is a speech concern. Children who have trouble hearing may have trouble saying, understanding, imitating, and using language.

If your child’s hearing is normal, but they are not meeting their speech milestones and show signs of a delay, it may be time to have them evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. A speech-language pathologist is a healthcare professional trained to assess and treat speech and language disorders. They can determine if your child has a specific speech or language problem that requires treatment, as well as provide strategies to help improve their pronunciation.

Laura Sutliffe

Laura Sutliffe

Laura is a District Relations Executive, supporting usage and adoption of Amplio Speech and Language alongside our district partners. Laura has over 30 years of experience as a nationally certified Speech-Language Pathologist. She is a founding member and director of the Tiny-K Alliance, Infants and Families Program.

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