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Confronting Speech Delays Without Family Support

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

Last week, my daughter was diagnosed with a speech delay. She’s nearly 21 months old and has a grand total of four “words” (all animal noises). Her receptive language is fine–she understands everything we say–and they found her right on track or advanced for her age on all the other developmental indicators they looked at. For a while I had also been privately concerned about some sort of sensory processing issue, as she wouldn’t touch or walk on sand or grass, or eat anything smooth, but in the past couple of months she seems to have gotten over that. I was not surprised when the therapists conducting the evaluation told me there was a delay (it’s 50%, meaning she has the expressive language skills of a child half her age), and in fact I was glad to hear it. Her lack of spoken language (she has about 70 signs) is frustrating for all of us, and now she qualifies for free services to help her (weekly individual therapy, for the time being). What’s bad about that?

Well, it apparently is bad because means that I am an overzealous parent who will not acknowledge the complete perfection of my mother-in-law’s only grandchild. I knew she thought that going for the evaluation was silly, but she asked to be called when we knew what was going to happen. Now there are lots of comments (many directed to the baby while I am nearby) about how she’ll talk when she’s ready and surprise us all and there’s nothing wrong. She keeps questioning me about the evaluation (don’t they know the baby uses sign language to communicate? don’t they realize that kids that reach the physical milestones relatively early are sometimes a little later on verbal skills?) and telling me about other children she knows who didn’t talk until they were three! Four, even! And look, now they are at Harvard Law! Or finding the cure for cancer!

Seriously, more than once this weekend I’ve wanted to say, “Yeah, I mean, look at us early talkers. We just grow up to be housewives.” Luckily we only see my husband’s parents once a month, and I can avoid the phone calls (it just happened that this month’s visit fell the weekend immediately after our evaluation and diagnosis). I am trying to be as patient as I can, but it’s just so frustrating to feel this disapproval.

It’s not the first time my mother-in-law has expressed her dislike of how we do things. I’m still nursing and co-sleeping with my toddler, I quit my job to stay home when she was born, and I even use cloth diapers. Clearly I am just a crazy hippie, right? But those are all parenting choices, things that work for us (and that I know are not for everyone), and if she doesn’t like it, it doesn’t particularly bother me. But this disapproval stings, because this is really about my baby’s well-being, you know? This is about seeing how my child is held back in her interactions with people, and finding a way to help her along. When our pediatrician gave us the referral to Early Start at the 18-month check-up, she told us that she wasn’t particularly concerned about the baby’s level of speech now, but that it would be better to get things checked out now than wait until she was two and still not talking, and then have to deal with the wait to get an evaluation and then set up with services and everything. So I feel that we are being proactive and trying to help our daughter, and I’m being frowned on for that.

(I feel I should also note here that my husband also wants to go ahead with the therapy but isn’t taking his mom’s displeasure as personally as I am.)

I’m sorry.This has gotten terribly long. I guess I don’t even really know what my question for you is here. I suppose I’m simply looking for support from someone who has dealt with a speech delay and had to explain things to family members.


First of all, for what little it’s worth, I think you’re doing a wonderful thing for your daughter, and I’m confident it’s exactly the right thing for her. Honestly, your path to Early Intervention sounds a lot like ours — initial concerns at 18 months, referral for services and evaluation at 21 months. My son’s delay was not as pronounced as your daughter’s (he was more like 25% delayed for expressive since he had a few simple nouns), but the sensory issues were pretty obvious, and he didn’t have any sign language at the time. All told, pretty similar tales, so I feel pretty good at promising you a happy ending here. Speech therapy will be GREAT and once you get out of the interminable limbo of WAITING for speech therapy to begin, your confidence in your decision will be constantly boosted by positive results, and your mother-in-law’s words will bounce off you much easier, because seriously. There’s no reason to defend what’s obviously working for your daughter.

But you aren’t at that point yet, and I remember being where you are, stuck in that hand-wringing No Man’s Land before services actually start and IT IS HARD. Confronting these problems is HARD. Admitting that your child isn’t a perfect, incredibly-advanced genius is HARD. And that’s where your mother-in-law’s “disapproval” lies. She just isn’t there yet. She can’t (or won’t) see that a problem exists. Partially because speech therapy just wasn’t given to toddlers back when she was raising her children (and just talk to any mother who has had to argue with grandparents about newborns not needing bottles of water anymore and that THEY MUST SLEEP ON THEIR BACKS, and you’ll know that these old parenting techniques are hard for previous generations to shake). And partially, perhaps, because she sees shades of one of her children in your daughter. A child who maybe would have benefitted from early therapy, but instead just had to wait and “catch up” at their own pace.

(Fast-forward 30 years or so, and imagine your daughter looking up at you over her own baby and telling you that nursing into toddlerhood has been proven to cause such and such problem, or cloth diapers have been banned because of such and such other problem, or that she’s putting her baby in daycare because she’s been told it’s essential for her immune system and social development, or…SOMETHNG. Imagine being told that a decision you made out of love and total confidence that it was the right way to do things was absolutely wrong, according to modern medical advice.)

I noticed this sort of thing from my own family — who were, really, very supportive for the most part. But they still did cling to the stories about who didn’t talk until he was three and who just outgrew their stutter one day. I think they meant them as a form of comfort to us, but it IS easy to read as disapproval or as judgement of overly neurotic modern parenting where every tantrum gets slapped with a neurological diagnosis.

I definitely noticed this sort of thing from comments on my website. People would openly JUDGE US for getting our son the help that his doctor and our county agreed he needed, and would tell me straight up that I was being ridiculous and pushy and you know, if I just turned off the TV for a few minutes a day or read him a damn book occasionally he’d be JUST FINE. It was often very easy to read through the lines and see a parent defensively defending THEIR parenting choice to ignore a delay, desperate to find a way to blame ME for Noah’s problems, to assure themselves that my kid was autistic or I was just a bad mother or a crazy drama queen.

Luckily, these people were far and few between, and were easily outnumbered by the parents who DID tackle their children’s problems head-on and were there to testify that it was the best decision they ever made. It would have been harder, I think, if the judgey “OH CALM THE EFF DOWN” people had my home phone number like your mother-in-law does, but I advise you to take her comments just as seriously as you would take comments from the anonymous online peanut gallery.

And hey, tackling Noah’s problems head-on and pursue speech therapy for him was probably the best decision we ever made. I’m confident your daughter will benefit greatly from services and will enjoy them, and you’ll be amazed at the progress you’ll see after just a few months. And when that happens, your mother-in-law’s comments will go from empty chatter (yes, yes, so-and-so didn’t talk until he was four, but he also likes Vaseline on toast, so…) to something you can just tune out completely, because your choice — your overreactive, neurotic choice! — will prove to be the right one. It will, because it is. You know your daughter, you know what’s best, you know the success rates for tackling delays before the age of three, you know it’s better to swallow your pride and ask for the help she needs.

You know all of this, you do. I don’t need to sit here and type all the possible justifications you can use on your mother-in-law. You don’t need to sit there and argue with her and attempt to change her mind. This is YOUR daughter, your decision. It’s wonderful — WONDERFUL — that your husband is on-board with you (trust me, I’ve gotten emails from mothers who are COMPLETELY alone in this, with partners who refuse to acknowledge obvious problems and give the exact same sound bites as your mother about EINSTEIN DIDN’T TALK UNTIL HE WAS THREEEEE). (And look, Einstein had a LOT of problems growing up, genius aside. Personally I’d be JUST FINE with my son not having that much in common with Einstein.)

Let your husband deal with his mother as much as possible, change the subject when she brings it up with you, cut her off with a curt statement about how you simply don’t see the POINT in NOT pursuing the FREE FREAKING THERAPY — it’s a nice teacher coming over with TOYS, for God’s sake, not strapping the kid to a chair and showing them flashcards all Clockwork-Orange style — because if it MIGHT help, why not? It’s certainly not going to hurt her. The end.

You might never change your mother-in-law’s mind. She might still believe that any success your daughter achieves in therapy would have “just happened” anyway. (We get that too.) But it does get easier to ignore. Try to recognize that her judgement says much more about her than you. It really isn’t about you, or even about your daughter. She is not open-minded or intuitive enough to see and accept the truth about your daughter and what she needs, but you are, thank goodness, and since YOU are the parent here, that’s all. That. Matters. Also. The. End.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Mouse

    October 3, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    When we started pursuing evaluation and therapy (speech and occupational) for our son, my in-laws had a similar reaction, because they thought their grandson was perfect as he was. Luckily, they were not super pushy and took it well when I finally said, “well, we’re concerned and this is what we’re doing.” Now, 18 months later, they have said to me on multiple occasions that the therapy has brought amazing changes and they’re so glad we did it.
    Which is a way of saying, “What Amalah said.”

  • foodmomiac

    October 3, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    When Max was speech delayed, we heard that ALL the time. “Oh, I didn’t speak until I was 3.” “Oh, Michael’s dad didn’t speak until he was 4 and his dad FORCED him to!” “It’s just genetic!”
    Turns out that Max had a hearing problem, which we would have NEVER known had we not pursued the speech therapy. Hang in there – you’re doing the right thing!!!

  • Diana

    October 3, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    When my MIL and I disagree about baby matters, I try to stick to my assigned talking points until I can change the topic. Which in this case would be a combo of: can’t hurt, it’s free, and my daughter has SO much fun at the sessions. With as rapid as possible switch to – how about them Red Sox (or whatever topic you know she can talk about endlessly).

  • Kaye

    October 3, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    I didn’t talk much as a very small child due to a stuttering problem that only became more pronounced as I got older. I started speech therapy in the public schools when I was six. By the time I was 11 (and switched to private school, which incidentally did not have speech therapy available) I had learned exercises and techniques to working through the stutter which has drastically improved. Over the next year, it disappeared completely, and five years after that, I went to state on our school’s speech and debate team, speaking dozens of times in front of roomfuls of people–without a trace of a stutter. Stuttering is hereditary in my family (my grandma has it) and we are a study in contrasts of what a difference speech therapy can make.

  • Kelly

    October 4, 2008 at 12:29 am

    My son didn’t say a thing at 1 year… no animal sounds, no words, almost no babbling. Our pediatrician said, “Why not start the evaluation process? He’s probably going to need therapy, so why not start early?”
    We started therapy when he was about 13.5 months old. Now, at just 16 months… he makes tons of animal noises and says more than 20 words. I think we can confidently say SPEECH THERAPY WORKS!
    Even though some relatives rolled their eyes and wondered why a BABY needed this service, they can’t argue with the results, can they? 🙂
    Good luck!

  • Sara

    October 4, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    My daughter doesn’t have speech delays, but she has “lazy eye” and food allergies. There are always people who will judge. When Lucy got glasses, people had the gall to ask, “isn’t that making her eyes worse?” or “can’t she just do eye exercises?” She ended up getting surgery to correct the lazy eye and it took me awhile to get over the myriad voices asking if I was doing this for “vanity” reasons. After the surgery (at age 4), we couldn’t be happier and her ability to run and play actually improved (she crawled and walked late). Turns out we–and our doctors–did know what the heck we were doing. The point is, there is always someone who will judge and blame. All the best with your mother-in-law, and your son.

  • Molly

    October 5, 2008 at 9:49 am

    I could have written your post too! My older son had gross and fine motor skill delays and a severe stutter. At age 3 he was in PT, OT, and speech. My in-laws and probably a lot of our friends thought we were crazy since he was very smart and “looked” fine. Until we had him evaluated and he was 50% delayed in gross and fine motor skills, and his stutter was so terrible that he would cry when speaking. “Mama, help me talk!” He is in 3rd grade now and bears no trace of any of these problems, and my husband and I are grateful every day for the amazing professionals who helped him catch up. My in-laws as well were extremely disapproving that we were sullying the supposed perfection of their grandchild. Great-grandma even laughed at him stuttering which broke his little heart. Not helpful.
    Which brings us to #2, who would not eat as a toddler and preschooler. “When he’s hungry, he’ll eat!” was a common refrain. From my own mother too – and our pediatrician. Just relax and leave him alone. As he got skinnier and skinnier and his behavior got worse and worse. And his belly began to distend like a starving child. Finally I forced my dr. to run tests and turns out? He has celiac disease and he was, quite literally, starving. Now he has major anxiety about eating- who wouldn’t if every bite made you sick? and he still won’t eat more than 4 or 5 foods. All a long-winded and poorly written way to say that YOU know you are doing the right thing for your kid and that is all that matters. Tell them all to go f themselves and wait and see what an amazing difference the therapy will make for your kid.
    Best of luck.

  • Jessica

    October 5, 2008 at 10:41 am

    I think Amalah is (as always) right on. I’d stick with saying, “it is free and can’t hurt” to her and if she continues and it really bothers you, I don’t see an issue with saying, “hey, look… this is hard for all of us, and yeah, some kids are late talkers but this is something we are concerned with and I’d appreciate your support” or something like that. I think most people would get the freaking hint!
    Good luck. You are doing the right thing. Parenting is all about choices – to nurse or not to nurse, to co-sleep or not, to confront reality or not – and it’s up to individual parents to make those choices. You guys are doing great 🙂

  • Kate

    October 5, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Luckily, we did have family support to pursue my son’s speech delay; what we didn’t have was “enough” of a delay to qualify for New York City services, although my son was 20 months and had no spoken words and only two or three consonant sounds, period. (He had no other delays, which would have guaranteed the services.)
    I could communicate with him fine, because I knew the 200 signs he used. But what about the rest of the universe? And the excessive drooling and low facial muscle tone? We were told by the Early Intervention people to re-evaluate in 4 to 6 months, to which I said AS IF I am going to wait that long (the speech pathologist who did the eval was certain he’d need therapy, and lots of it) and got him a space at a well-regarded university speech clinic–almost as much as a bargain as EI, at $150 per semester.
    After a semester’s worth of twice weekly therapy, he had just four words and animal sounds, plus more consonants. But then we got our fairy tale ending and over the summer things just exploded, and now (at 2.5 yo) we’ve got pretty typical 2 year old speech. (Later in the summer we also did 8 weeks of private therapy, which was $$$ but helped too.)
    This is my very long-winded way of telling Elizabeth that you are absolutely within your rights to play Mama Bear and protect the best interests of your daughter. If you can share some of the “blame” with a trusted pediatrician, even better. And I wish your daughter and your husband and you the very best on your speech therapy journey; don’t be discouraged if it goes slowly at the beginning!

  • LGraves65

    October 6, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Dear Elizabeth,
    You did exactly the right thing, and your MIL can just sack up and deal. Because in OUR family, I have a 9-year-old nephew with untreated speech defects because his dad (my husband’s brother) and my MIL kept telling my then-SIL that, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with him,” and “We understand him just fine.”
    He has a tongue-tie that has never been clipped, and a tongue/palate malformation that has never been fixed. He sounds like he’s talking around a mouth full of marbles, poor kid. It’s almost child abuse what they’ve done to him.

  • Lara

    October 6, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    My son was diagnosed at his 2 year checkup with a 50% speech delay. We tried speech therapy for months, and for us, it did not help a bit. I think it was more frustrating for him and he refused to talk even more. After a few months, I quit taking him but I continued to use the tips that I learned from the therapist and now, at 3 years old, he can say whatever he wants. AND I frequently get comments on what a huge vocabulary he has. Not saying that speech therapy isn’t helpful for everyone, but for us it wasn’t.
    Hang in there.

  • Jenny A

    October 7, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    I had speech problems with the “R” until my son was almost 3 (I was 31 at the time)
    I live in Peru and speak spanish so it’s a Huge deal not to be able to say words with “R”. In school and college I never wanted to speak in public because I was embarrased, my friends undestood me, but people who didn’t knew me weren’t as supportive.
    When everybody (family, friends, including the doctor who had to give me the reference for free ST) told me that he was too litle and would learn with time I said: “look at me, I’ve waited 30 years and can’t speak well” 😀 He gave me the reference.
    Now 3 years later my son speaks perfect and I’ve learn to speak with him, ST is amazing, you just need to practice DAYLY (the therapist told me WE had to practice the exercises 3 times a day, easier said than done when you are an adult).

  • Marie

    October 9, 2008 at 11:27 am

    I feel like I could have written your question. My son had 1 word at 1 – which raised the pedi’s flag – we started the eval process – where we found out he had a fine motor delay, which we got weekly therapy for. At 2 he graduated from OT work and since he had about 10 words then, said let’s go for the full speech eval. Since he was delayed we started speech for 7 months – and now at 3 he talks like a champ. When I started this process I my family said I was being a crazy-overprotective-hypocondract mom….my family. Needless to say, I was frusrated at their lack of support. I felt like the therapy sessions taught me as much as they taught him.
    You are doing the right thing for your sweet girl.

  • Jenni

    April 13, 2009 at 3:13 am

    I am grateful to all the comments on this page. While we discovered my son’s delay earlier than you (12 months), he’s now 18 months and still hasn’t received therapy (we moved because of the military right before we got to start, then at the new base the ONLY <3 ST got sick right before we got to start). While my husband and I agree on the course of action, our families do not. They think “he’ll talk when he’s ready” and “some babies just talk later than others” and if I hear “Einstein didn’t talk until he was 3” one more time I might have to punch someone. My favorite is them blaming me for teaching him sign language. They’re convinced it’s why he isn’t talking. So today I’m sending e-mails to both Grandmas (the main culprits) about how signing HELPS language development, and DOES NOT hinder it! Sheesh, like I’d purposely do something to delay my kid. It’s really nice to hear other people going through the exact same things.

  • Becky Worthman

    May 9, 2014 at 1:41 am

    I could have written this myself! Except for the MIL, replace with other family (My husband’s parents are both deceased).  My girl signs but doesn’t talk and I want to get started with Early Intervention. (I also cosleep and cloth diaper.)  I love you thanks for asking your question, so I can get this answer, because I was becoming filled with self-doubt instead of your approach which was to find support. Good idea! Thanks again!