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How To Recognize Problems In Toddler Language Development

flickr / Rafiq Sarlie

A silent kid is pretty unnerving. That’s why they’re the mainstay of horror films. But beyond the Damiens and corn children of Hollywood, a silent child is particularly frightening for a parent. That’s because language development becomes one of the primary focuses after your kid becomes mobile. And when you don’t hear cute words emanating from their face, it can be more scary than if they suddenly started shouting “Outlander!”

damien from the sixth sense

But language development is notoriously hard to pin down. In fact, one statistic shows that 1 in 5 children will be behind others when it comes to talking. Given that fact, how do you know if something is actually wrong with your silent kid? Here’s how to understand if they’re experiencing language delays (and what to do about it).

Language Milestones

In general, tracking your kid’s language is as easy as remembering 1, 2, 3. That is, your kid should be using single words by age 1, 2-word combinations between 18 months and 2 years, and 3-word sentences by age 3. After that, all bets are off. It’s not like you only use 30 word sentences at 30. That would be weird.

In terms of the amount of words your kid should know, the benchmark is that a toddler should be spouting between 30 and 50 words by 18 months. However, there are reasons a kid might not be there yet. Only a few of them are related to serious brain issues. And none of them are related to being inspired by how Marshawn Lynch handled the press.

Why So Quiet?

Several reasons exist that might keep a kid from hitting their milestone. And in all honestly, for language development, milestone is a bit of misnomer considering the vast range of ages kids arrive at the speech goal. That said, here are some reasons you might feel as if they are behind.


Frequent ear infections during the early stages of language development can make it difficult to hear people talk, which is one of the main pathways to learn how to speak.

Premature Birth

Children who are born prematurely will be slow to hit pretty much all of their milestones. If your kid was born two months early, then you might expect them to crank up their word count around 20 months, rather than 18.


Yep. Turns out boys are slower to talk than girls in general. That’s why the range of words at 18 months is 30 to 50. Guess who’s on the low end?

Developmental Focus

Some kids are applying their brain power to other important areas of development. They might be concentrating on developing skills other than picking up all the cool words they’re hearing.


In some cases not talking can be related to an intellectual or mental disability. These may even be related to Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Signs Of Concern

It’s important to understand that in most cases, a kid who is slow to talk will very likely catch up their peers in due time. However, there are signs that being slow to talk may be related to a deeper issue.

No Gestures

Understand that developing communication skills isn’t just about talking. If your quiet kid has a wide vocabulary of gestures to tell you what they want, or how they’re feeling, you can relax a bit. Unless that gesture is a raised middle finger. In which case you probably have bigger fish to fry.

Lack Of Understanding

Part of language development is being able to understand what you as a parent are saying. Generally a kid who can understand and follow simple directions, and recognize objects based on the words you say, is going to be alright. But when they appear to ignore you or not understand, it may be time to seek help.


Many times, a kid that doesn’t talk that much will have typical emotional responses and behaviors for their age. The trouble occurs when a child that isn’t talking appears disconnected emotionally, or appears to be in their own world. This could include what appears to be a complete lack of interest in communicating

Additional Red Flags

  • Has not said first word by 15 months
  • Lacks consistent words by 18 months
  • Cannot combine words by 24 months
  • Difficulty being understood by 24 months

What To Do

Any time you are truly concerned, your first call should be to your pediatrician. If possible, arrive at these appointments with any kind of documentation you can. This might include videos of behavior you’re concerned by, or even a journal. Your doctor should be able to guide you toward next steps, and possibly refer you to a speech pathologist if necessary.

If you feel your child is just a little behind, make sure you are encouraging healthy language development by talking, reading and communicating with your kid on a constant basis. Also, consider devices to help you track how many words your kid is hearing and online tools to help you decide if your kid is on track.

In the end, having a kid that’s slow to talk does not have to be terrifying. In fact some of history’s most famous people didn’t talk until very late, including Einstein and Malachai. Okay. Scratch that last one. It was just a corny joke anyway.