What To Know About a Speech Sound Disorder in Children

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 10, 2022
5 min read

A child’s early years are the most important for their development. Children with a healthy and supportive development phase will typically learn all needed abilities for social, emotional, and educational needs. They will also learn essential language, speech, sound, and fine motor skills. Still, some children end up with delays, and while most will catch up with their peers, not all do. 

One delay affecting children is known as a speech sound disorder. But what is a speech sound disorder, and what are the symptoms? 

Speech sound disorders are communication disorders, primarily in children. Affected children may have trouble pronouncing certain words, speaking plainly, and making specific sounds needed to communicate. Some children may also talk with a stutter or lisp. Family, friends, and peers may struggle to understand what a speech-sound-impaired child says. 

Speech sound disorders begin to show as young children develop. Typically, as a child reaches a certain age, they should be able to pronounce certain speech sounds. When a child reaches 8 years old, they should have learned how to correctly pronounce all speech sounds. 

Still, it’s normal for a young child below age 8 to have trouble with certain speech sounds and language. Several children experience delays in speech and language but eventually catch up with their peers. Those who don’t catch up may need communication development from a speech-language pathologist. 

Typically, there are no known speech sound disorder causes. However, a family history may be involved. 

There are a few other conditions that may cause speech sound errors or delays, including: 

  • Brain injuries 
  • Developmental disability disorders, such as autism
  • Genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome 
  • Hearing issues or hearing loss 
  • Cleft palate or cleft lip 
  • Nerve disorders, such as cerebral palsy 
  • Recurrent ear infections 
  • Tumors

Children are at a greater risk for developing a speech sound disorder if the following issues are present: 

  • Excessive pacifier or thumb sucking 
  • Uneducated parents 
  • Insufficient educational support at home 

While speech sound disorders are primarily seen in children, some adults also have them. Some children never relieve their speech sound disorders and they grow into adults with the same conditions. Other adults develop speech sound disorders after a traumatic injury, such as a stroke or brain injury.

There are a few types of speech sound disorders, but the main two are articulation and phonological.

Articulation disorders are when a child cannot pronounce specific words, making it hard for others to understand them. On the other hand, phonological disorders are when a child has trouble producing certain sounds of consonants or vowels. 

Articulation disorders are broken down into three groups: 

  • Speech sound disorder: Speech sound disorders may be seen in children past a certain developmental age. Specific speech sounds are more complex to vocalize than others are, such as s, r, and l. 
  • Phonological process disorder: Phonological process disorders happen when there is a pattern of not correctly pronouncing words. 
  • Motor speech disorder: Motor speech disorders happen when a child has difficulty moving muscles required to talk. Dysarthria and apraxia are the two types of motor speech disorders. Dysarthria occurs when the face, mouth, and respiratory system muscles are weak, move slower than usual, or, in some cases, don’t move at all. Apraxia occurs when a child has trouble speaking correctly and consistently and happens due to speech coordination.

Speech sound disorder symptoms vary depending on your child’s speech sound disorder. Typically, children with these disorders will have difficulty forming word sounds, despite being at the correct age where pronouncing those sounds should be easy. You may notice your child dropping, distorting, adding, or swapping sounds. 

For example, if your child leaves off sounds from words, saying a word like “school” may come out as “coo”. If your child adds extra sounds to a word, they may say something like “puhlease” instead of “please”. If sounds are distorted, you may notice your child saying things like “thith” instead of “this. Finally, if your child is struggling with swapping sounds, you may notice your child saying words like “sowwy” instead of “sorry”. 

These are all a part of articulation disorders. When it comes to phonological disorders, they may have issues with syllables. For example, your child may say “tat” instead of “cat” or “baba” instead of “bottle”. While these sounds are expected in toddlers and younger children, if they last as the child develops more, it might be a speech disorder. 

Other possible speech sound disorder symptoms include: 

  • Difficulty with jaw, tongue, and lip movements 
  • Inability to speak correctly compared to other children their age 
  • Unclear speech, inability for others to understand them 
  • Sudden changes in volume and pitch when speaking
  • Voice sounds raspy, hoarse, or congested 
  • Running out of breath when speaking 
  • Talking with a stutter or a lisp 
  • Difficulty with certain activities such as chewing or blowing their nose

To receive a speech sound disorder diagnosis, your child’s doctor will evaluate your child’s hearing to rule out hearing issues that may be causing speech sound problems. Once hearing loss is ruled out, your doctor may recommend that you speak to a speech expert known as a speech-language pathologist (SLP). SLPs will have the necessary knowledge and experience to make a proper speech sound diagnosis. 

The SLP will test your child’s ability to say certain words. They will also pay attention to how your child moves their jaw, lips, and tongue. Additionally, they will want to test your child’s language skills since language skills often accompany speech sound disorders. 

Your child’s SLP will evaluate your child’s accent and dialect. If the SLP determines that your child’s sounds are less clear or less developed than other children's their age, your SLP will likely diagnose them with a speech sound disorder. 

Your child's speech sound disorder treatment will be unique to your child and their specific speech sound disorder. Thus, your child’s SLP will devise a strategy to help them overcome their disorder. 

The SLP will work to help your child: 

  • Realize which sounds they produce are incorrect and help to fix them 
  • Pinpoint problem sounds and teach your child how to correctly form them  
  • Practice making specific sounds and saying certain words 

If your SLP has noticed structural differences in your child’s mouth, they will refer you to the appropriate specialist. 

As a parent, there are specific measures you can take to encourage correct speech sound development in your child, too. Regularly communicate with your child and those around you by talking or singing, inciting verbal exchanges when necessary, and reading to your child from an early age. 

Additionally, follow the SLP’s speech program strictly as advised. 

The earlier your child receives a diagnosis and treatment plan, the better. Early treatment can help your child develop correct speech and sound and learn how to correctly communicate.