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Helping Your Late-Talking Children

If your child seems to be a late talker, when is the time to seek help? What's normal?
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"Mama. Dada."

Those are often the first words spoken by a baby, and they can turn an ordinary day into a memorable one for parents.

But if children seem to lag behind their peers in their ability to talk, it can create anxiety and plenty of sleepless nights among parents, and perhaps prompt worried phone calls to the pediatrician, asking, "Why isn't my child talking?" Parents may remember that an older sibling was much farther along in his language development at the same age, maybe speaking in two- or three-word sentences at age 2 with ease. And as time passes, their apprehension may turn to panic.

In the majority of cases, however, there's no need for alarm. Most children develop language at their own pace, and there is a broad range of normal, says Diane Paul-Brown, PhD, director of clinical issues at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). "Some children develop language at a faster rate than others," she says. Even so, there are times to have a child's speech and language evaluated.

Speech/Language Milestones

About 15%-25% of young children have some kind of communication disorder. Boys tend to develop language skills a little later than girls, but in general, kids may be labeled "late-talking children" if they speak less than 10 words by the age of 18 to 20 months, or fewer than 50 words by 21 to 30 months of age.

Most experts say that at age 12 months, children should be saying single words, and may be able to say "mama" and "dada." They also should be able to understand and comply with simple requests ("Give me the toy").

The American Academy of Pediatrics lists the following milestones for the first five years:

  • By the end of the second year, your toddler should be able to speak in two- to three-word sentences. She should be able to follow simple instructions and repeat words heard in conversation.
  • By the end of the third year, your child should be able to follow an instruction with two or three steps, recognize and identify practically all common objects and pictures, and understand most of what is said to her. She should speak well enough to be understood by those outside the family.
  • By the end of the fourth year, your child should ask abstract (why?) questions and understand concepts of same vs. different. She should have mastered the basic rules of grammar as she hears it around her. Although your child should be speaking clearly by age 4, she may mispronounce as many as half of her basic sounds; this is not a cause for concern.
  • By age 5, your child should be able to retell a story in her own words and use more than five words in a sentence.

Though some children seem to lag a little behind in their spoken (or "expressive") language, their "receptive" language may be better -- that is, they may appear to understand much of what is being said to them. "When a child is not using a lot of words but seems to comprehend what you're saying and can follow commands, there is less reason for concern than if a child lags in both expressive and receptive language," says Paul-Brown, a speech-language pathologist. "Receptive language is a useful predictor to differentiate late talkers from those children with developmental delays."

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