Everything You Need to Know Before Freaking Out Over Your Toddler’s Delayed Speech

little boy with delayed speech
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There is no good time for your child to throw a tantrum in public. The awful glares and judgment from strangers can rattle even the chillest moms. For a parent whose child has a developmental delay, these situations can evoke feelings of shame and inadequacy.

“OHHH-UT,” my 2-year-old screams, over and over again at the bakery because I won’t give him a donut before finishing his lunch. “First bagel, then donut,” I explain to him multiple times in the simplest form of communication I can muster. “OHHH-UT, OHHH-UT, OHHH-UT!!!!,” he shouts, as the man behind him wearing headphones turns around with a look of disapproval. “He’s about to fall off the chair,” the onlooker says over my son’s screaming.

Little did he know, I had my foot securely placed on the bottom of the chair, anticipating Nate’s very physical response to my “no.” The look of frustration in my boy’s deep brown eyes hits me to the core. I can tell by his upper lip quiver and rolling tears that he doesn’t understand the message I’m trying to convey, nor the reason behind it.

I want to tell the stranger in headphones that my son receives daily therapy through Early Intervention, a government program for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities. I want to tell him that I have to occasionally close the door to my bathroom, turn on the fan to drown out the screams and breathe for 30 seconds so I can stay calm. I want to tell him that today was the first “good” Saturday we’ve had in months — until now.

I know I’m not alone and other parents are struggling with their own children, so here are five things to remember if you have a child with a speech delay.

1. It’s not your fault.

Are you asking yourself if you talk to your child enough, or doubting if you’re exposing him to enough toddler classes and play dates with peers? Well, don’t. You are responsible for so many things about the tiny life you created.

The wave in their hair that’s just like yours, the sing-songy way they whine when they need something, and yes — even introducing them to those insanely pricey yogurt melts and weird YouTube videos. But please, do not allow someone to make you feel like your child’s inability to form sentences is somehow a trait you passed on or created out of circumstance.

“We often do not know why a child has a communication delay,” says our Speech-Language Pathologist, Kristen Borduin. “Sometimes there is a specific diagnosis, such as autism, stroke, cerebral palsy, or seizure disorder, but more often than not there is no obvious reason or cause.”

Additionally, there are many environmental factors that can contribute or exacerbate the condition that can make it hard to find studies relating to your child’s specific situation. “There are lots of factors involved,” Borduin adds, “But some children are just wired differently.”

2. Stop caring when people stare.

People will stare at you and your child as if you are intentionally disturbing the peace with reckless abandon. Stare back until they look away. My child sometimes abruptly screams upon entering a restaurant or store.

“There could be a few reasons why a child screams, such as frustration or a learned behavior,” Borduin explains.

“The screaming is often viewed by the child as a successful means of communication if in the past it has resulted in being given something desirable,” she says. “Children who are not speaking or have limited vocabularies may also pantomime or use sound effects to express themselves.”

Maybe it’s too loud inside, maybe he’s tired and can’t tell me with words. His cries act as a bridge to communication until he has the vocabulary to express himself.

3. Don’t be afraid to discipline.

If my older child threw a toy at me, there would be a consequence — likely a time out. Yet when a child with a developmental delay screams out of frustration, our emotions can make it feel challenging to punish the inappropriate behavior. I will never forget collapsing on the floor next to my chubby-cheeked blonde baby boy, who wouldn’t stop shrieking after his little hand-held plane didn’t fit into a toy garage. In my thirtysomething rational brain, I couldn’t fathom why he didn’t realize that the objects didn’t fit and move on to something bigger. As I stared into his eyes, welling with tears, I, too, started to cry out of helplessness. “It doesn’t fit, Natey. It’s too big!” but my words were just sounds to Nate.

It took many episodes and one aha moment with the developmental pediatrician to realize my child needed a different approach. I now remove the object causing the frustration and move on with my day. All toddlers have tantrums and need structure and discipline. Don’t enable the behavior because you feel sorry for them — you aren’t doing them any favors.

4. Enlist help — the earlier, the better.

I called early intervention at 20 months old, and I’m thankful every day that I did. Developmental services are based on a sliding scale and are only covered until age 3. The sooner your child meets with a behavioral or speech therapist, the better. Nate, now 2½, has progressed leaps and bounds from where he started due to weekly therapy. He can now put three or four words together in a sentence, has increased his vocabulary from 5 to about 30 words, and has even started mimicking sounds he hears, such as songs on the radio. When Justin Bieber sing, “Don’t you give up,” Nate sings, “Na, na, na,” with a huge grin on his face. Before this breakthrough, he would just stare out the window or scream. Car rides are so much more tolerable now.

The earlier you can get help, the more tools you will have at your disposal and the sooner your child will begin making progress.

5. Nix the “baby talk.”

“Mom, say choo-choo, not doo-doo!” my 6-year-old often reminds me. “Doo-doo” is Nate’s favorite word. He’s currently obsessed with trains and carries them in both hands wherever he goes, humming “Doo-doo!” as he plays. It’s so cute that it’s hard not to parrot back with a smile. Yet, when a child with a speech delay pronounces words without consonants or with too much emphasis on the vowels, they need to be corrected. Your child won’t learn the real word if you repeat their version all the time.

There are other simple things you can do at home, such as reading board books, and talking about your day as it happens.

For example:
Mommy is folding laundry.
Big brother is eating.
Green light, go.

“The absolute best thing you can do for your child is to take away their iPad and put down your phone,” says Borduin. “An iPad is a tool. If I give a toddler a hammer, bad things can and will happen. If I give my husband the same tool, he can create wonderful things.”

Now, I sit down with Nate and push trains on the track, emphasizing, “choo-choo,” and my little conductor is really coming around.

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