Language Delay: Red Flags for Young Children


Photo Courtesy James Jordan/flickr

If you have a young child, you almost certainly have seen developmental charts in books or on the internet – you may have even spent a great deal of time comparing their recommendations to your child’s abilities. These charts detail expected speech and language milestones, gross motor milestones, fine motor milestones, feeding milestones, and so many others to worry about – the speech milestones alone can be overwhelming since there are so many of them!

Although these charts can be helpful, at times they cause undue stress when a parent views them and thinks to themselves, “My child didn’t do this – my child didn’t do that!” Is it possible to simply enjoy what your child is currently doing before having to obsess about the next thing he/she should be able to do?

Development charts are based on averages, but children develop different skills at different rates, so it’s important to keep in mind that missing a milestone isn’t always cause for concern. However, because early intervention is so beneficial, it’s equally important to identify delays as early as possible. Often, it is easier to look at possible “red flags” for language delays than to look at all of the different ages that your child should master a skill.

Expressive language is the way that someone expresses their needs, wants, and ideas. Expressive language ranges from using eye gaze to look at an object to using full sentences to retell an experience. The following are possible expressive language delay red flags for children under 3 years of age:

  • Not cooing by 6 months of age
  • Not babbling by 9 months of age
  • Not having a first word by 15 months of age
  • Not having consistent words by 18 months of age
  • Not having two word combinations by 24 months of age
  • Not being able to understand your child’s speech at 24 months of age
  • Strangers not being able to understand your child’s speech at 36 months of age
  • Not showing interest in communicating with others (at any age)

Receptive language is your ability to understand what is going on around you or what is being said to you. It ranges from imitating somebody’s actions to following directions. The following are possible receptive language delay red flags for children under 3 years of age:

  • Not turning towards a noise like a rattle or voice by 6 months of age
  • Not being able to follow simple one-step directions at 12 months of age (such as “bring me your cup”)
  • Not being able to point to one body part by 18 months of age
  • Not being able to follow simple two-step directions by 36 months of age (such as “pick up the ball and give it to me”)
  • Not responding to simple questions by vocalizing or gesturing yes or no by 12 months of age
  • Not understanding common gestures like holding your arms out for a hug (by 12 months of age) or holding up a hand for a high five (by 24 months of age).
  • Not responding (with either gestures or vocalizations) to greetings by 12 months of age
  • Not able to follow eye gaze or finger pointing when talking about an object by 24 months of age
  • Not being able to point to 6 body parts by 30 months of age.

If you have concerns about your child’s early speech and language development, it’s important to discuss them with your child’s doctor, because charts themselves won’t help you determine if your child is just developing slowly in this area or has a true delay. Even if you do notice some red flags in your child’s language development, remember to enjoy what your child is able to do while continuing to work on the things that they need to be doing next.

Jessie Nelson Willis, M.Ed., CCC-SLP

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