Most young children have some trouble with speech – that is, with pronouncing some sounds and words. It can be hard to get little lips and tongues and other parts of the mouth making the right sounds at the right times. But some speech troubles can be a sign of speech disorders or speech sound disorders.
About speech and speech development
Speech is the ability to use your lips, tongue and other parts of your mouth to produce sounds.
For speech, children need to understand different sounds, as well as the rules for putting those sounds together in their own language.
Most children master the following sounds at the following ages:
Most children make mistakes in their speech during the first few years of speech development. But by about three years, most children can be understood by their main caregivers, siblings and peers.
Spotting speech disorders
If you’re worried that your child might have a speech disorder, think about how often people who don’t know your child have trouble understanding your child.
When a child is two, an unfamiliar person should understand about half to three-quarters of what the child is saying. When a child is three and older, an unfamiliar person should understand that child most of the time, even though the child will probably still say some sounds and words differently from adults.
Some speech disorders happen when a child has a physical problem (such as a cleft palate) that makes it hard for them to create the sounds of speech. Others have trouble because of a hearing impairment. But most children have no specific reason for their speech disorder.
When to seek help for speech disorders
If your child has a speech disorder, you’ll probably need help from a professional.
It’s best to consider seeking help if your child:
Children develop speech at different rates. But you know your child best. You should seek help if you have any worries about your child’s speech development.
Where to seek help for your child’s speech
If you think your child has a speech disorder, consult a speech therapist. You can visit a privately practising speech therapist yourself, or a General Practitioner (GP) or paediatrician can help you find one.
If your child does have a speech disorder, a speech therapist might suggest some therapy sessions, either one on one with you and your child, or in a group with other children. The speech therapist will also give you things you can do at home to help your child.
The speech therapist should be able to answer any questions you have about speech and language development.
Audiologists can help with speech disorders if your child has a hearing problem. They will check your child’s hearing. If it is impaired, they can talk to you about how this might affect your child’s communication.
Other professionals you might want to consult for advice include your child’s child care educator, teacher (pre-school or school), or your GP.
Helping your child’s speech development
It’s normal for young children to pronounce words differently from adults. There’s no need to correct them every time they make a mistake – this can be frustrating for everyone.
If you want to encourage your child, gentle reminders can help your child pronounce words the right way. For example, if your child says, ‘I saw the tat’, you could reply, ‘Where was the cat? What was the cat doing?’ Repeat the missing or different sound with a slight emphasis.
If your child’s speech is really difficult to understand, here are some ideas for helping your child to communicate:
What not to worry about with speech development
Although children might be able to make the right sounds, they might not use them correctly in words in the early years. And while they are learning to talk, children simplify adult speech to make it easier to say.
This means you probably don’t need to worry if your child:
It’s OK if your three-year-old is still doing all of these things, as long as you can understand what he’s saying. But if your child is making lots of errors and you can’t understand what he’s saying, it’s a good idea to see a speech therapist.
Speech disorder or language delay?
Speech disorders are different from language delay:
Children with speech disorders don’t necessarily have a language delay, but they can have both, or another communication impairment.
Speaking of Children II: Dr Kenneth Poon on Tips for Managing Children with Developmental Needs
If you notice some anomalies in your child’s development or behaviour and are considering seeking professional help, Dr Kenneth Poon has some useful advice for you. He shares more about the signs to look out for, when early interventions should be carried out and the positive actions you can take to support and guide your little one through.
Speaking of Children II: Dr Kenneth Poon on Self-Care for Parents of Children with Developmental & Special Needs
As you take care of your child with developmental or special needs, it’s just as important that you and your spouse find the space in your day to practise self-care too! Watch on for some self-care tips from Dr Kenneth Poon.
Play is a great relationship builder. Spending time playing with your child sends a simple message – you are important to me. Help your child learn about who she is and where she fits in the world.