Speech Development and Language Problems in Toddlers

As the mother of 4 children, ranging in ages from 27 months to 15 years, I have found several specific things over the years that had a positive effect on my childrens’ speech development.

From the moment children are born, they benefit so much from conversation with their parents and/or caregivers, brothers and sisters, extended family, etc. Personally, I learned to do this from watching my older sister when she became a mother. I had never seen anyone do it before, but she would sit and have meaningful conversations with her newborn babies! She talked to them about real life, every day events and happenings, and when they would coo back at her, she would answer them as though they had said something meaningful to the conversation! In this way, babies learn that verbal communication is a pleasurable experience, which in turn, encourages them to want to engage in that communication.

My oldest child, a daughter who is now 15, was a super early talker. Even at 2 months of age, she had a very specific verbal noise for “eat”. When she would make this noise, I would immediately let her nurse. Consequently, she learned from a very, very early age that verbalizing was a means to communicate what she wanted. Always respond to your babies, even if it’s just to explain to them with sincerity that you can’t pick them up, play, etc., right at that moment because you are doing dishes, making the bed, finishing an email, or whatever the reason might be. My personal belief and experience is that babies benefit greatly from positive responses to their verbalizations, from birth. Oh, and that daughter of mine? She started really talking in words that everyone could understand at 7 months of age, and hasn’t stopped since!

Moving on in to toddlerhood, one of the most useful practices I’ve found in encouraging proper pronunciation, is “repeating”. That is, when your child says a word incorrectly, give them the acknowledgement that you know what they are trying to communicate, but repeat the word correctly. For instance, my third child, when she was 12 months old, had learned what trees were. I’ll never forget camping at Yosemite one year, sitting near the river with Emily in my lap, while she pointed to a tree saying, “bee, bee”. It was very cute, but wanting to help her learn the correct pronunciation while still acknowledging that I understood what she was trying to communicate, I would answer with, “Yes, Emily, you’re right, that’s a tree”, emphasizing the “T-R” sound in the word tree.

Now, so far I’ve discussed practices for children who do not have any kind of speech challenges. However, my second child, a son, was very difficult for most people to understand when he was small. Even though my husband and I knew what our son was trying to communicate when he spoke, we usually had to interpret for anyone outside our immediate family. His biggest challenge was pronouncing the sound for “R”. He could pronounce it at the end of a word, but not as a beginning sound, or as a blend, such as “T-R” in the word tree. Instead, he would say, “Twee”. He pronounced his R’s as W’s, if they appeared in the beginning of a word. By the age of three and a half years old, my son was already beginning to read. So I realized that this was strictly a speech issue, not an overall learning or development delay.

I researched all that I could on speech issues in small children, and his specific issue, according to all that I read, was apparently not anything to be overly concerned about until the age of about 5 or 6. After that age, I read, this particular speech practice was considered an issue. By chance, one article that I read mentioned that speech problems in children are sometimes attributed to a child’s ears being too full of wax. I didn’t think this could apply to my son, as I kept his ears clean. However, when I looked in his ears with a flashlight, I did indeed notice that there seemed to be a lot of wax very far down in his ear canal. Not wanting to use a Q-tip that far into his ear, I again turned to the Internet, searching for ways to remove the wax. After a couple of other things that did not work, I tried something that worked unbelievably well.

The method, was to warm about half a mug of water in the microwave, and then fill the rest of the mug with hydrogen peroxide. It is important to test the temperature yourself to be positive that the liquid is not too hot OR too cold, as either one would be really uncomfortable for the child to have inserted into his ear. Next, I sat on the floor with a pillow on my lap and asked my son to lay his head down in a way that I could see really well into his ear with a flashlight. I used a bulb syringe like the kind you get at the hospital, but that can also be obtained for about $2 at places like Wal-Mart, Target, Rite-Aid, etc. I gently squirted some of the hydrogen peroxide and water solution into my son’s ear, and it begins to bubble furiously right away. It’s a little itchy for the child until they get used to it. What happens is that the bubbles create enough movement in the ear canal to work the wax loose, and the chunks of wax float to the top of the liquid. I put in enough of the solution to fill my son’s ear almost to the top, so that the wax will come all the way up. After a minute or so, I have my son turn his ear and drain it onto a towel, and then we repeat the process over and over again.

The first time we ever did this, I was stunned at how much wax kept appearing from deep inside his ear canal. I realized that for so much wax to be so deep in his ear, that the possibility that it had been affecting his hearing was a real one. This first session took over an hour! It took that long for wax to stop coming out. We probably filled and drained his ear about 30 times. The results were shocking.

Within the first 24 hours, my son’s speech was significantly clearer! About 3 days after this first thorough ear cleaning, my son talked to my sister for a few minutes on the phone. When he handed the phone back to me, my sister excitedly commented to me that his speech was so much clearer, and I hadn’t even told her about the ear cleaning. She said she couldn’t get over just how well she could understand him. Although I felt so happy for him that it seemed to have made such a big difference, it was a bittersweet realization. I felt sad that I hadn’t realized any of this sooner, knowing that I could have helped him years earlier.

Fortunately, it seemed quite inconsequential. His speech continued to improve with each passing day, and he was so excited for himself! I then went online, and found, on a speech therapist’s website, pages that I could print which contained dozens of words per page, based on whatever speech issue the child was having. For instance, I printed a page full of words that began with “R” or blends containing R, such as “TR” or “BR”. I would sit at the kitchen table with my son, say each word, and have him repeat it. It was slow going at first, as I realized that he had never heard “R” pronounced correctly, so he was actually not placing his tongue in the proper location of his mouth while trying to pronounce it. On the same website, I found exercises that I could have him do to help him strengthen his mouth and facial muscles in order to assist him in pronouncing “R” correctly. We did this for about 3 months before we really didn’t need to anymore. My son just turned 9 and has been speaking perfectly clearly for more than two full years.

So, talk to your babies in meaningful ways from the moment they are born! I actually even talked to my babies regularly while they were still in the womb, as most pregnancy books will tell you that we begin to develop our speech patterns while still in the womb. Ever wondered why your husband or brother seemed to speak with the same speech mannerisms and intonations at their mothers? No matter what your child’s age though, it’s never too late to begin to engage them in meaningful conversation, furthering their own speech skills.

If you feel the issues are beyond your abilites to correct alone, don’t be afraid to consult with a speech therapist, as so many speech issues can be greatly improved or corrected entirely with speech therapy. Most public schools offer speech therapy sessions to students at no cost to the parents. If your child is not yet in school, check with your local school district or child services department. There is most likely a resource for you and your child in your community.