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What To Do When You Suspect Your Child Is Speech Delayed

By Amalah



I have read your blogs for months, and I find them to be spectacularly hilarious and full of good advice. I wuv yoo! Anywhoodles, here’s my question…I have a daughter who is 13 months old. While other babies can at least say Mama and Dada, she can’t. She babbles away constantly, and has seemed to master the word “YAH!”. (Which, I’ll admit comes in handy if I want my SO to agree with me. I just ask if she thinks it’s a good idea, and she says “Yah.” From the mouths of babes….) Problem is…That’s the only word she knows, (except for mimicking Mommy’s use of the “F” word…) and she can’t associate words with people or actions. I’ve tried asking, “Up? You want up? UP?!” when she’s holding her arms out, but she doesn’t seem to get it. She can’t associate the two. While most toddlers can at least say Mama & Dada and associate their parents with the words, she can’t. My SO and I talk to her constantly, even if it’s explaining that I’m chopping vegetables for dinner. Point it, we talk to her all the time. I read somewhere to say the words she says back to her, and say things like, “Oh really? That’s so interesting, what else?” And we do that, but she’s just not getting it.

I read in your blog that Noah was/is speech delayed…So, is there something we can do to help her? Is there a way to tell if your child is definitely speech delayed? She’s on track with every other area of development, like motor skills…BTW, we’re kinda broke right now, so please tell me that’s there’s something we can do besides some expensive test.

Thank you, O Wise One of the Internets, One that I worship.

Freaked The F Out

“Is there a way to tell if your child is definitely speech delayed?” At 13 months? No. I do not think so. 13 months is entirely too young, too early. We did not get our first red flag for speech until Noah’s 18-month visit, and that’s because he just barely failed the five-to-10 word marker. (He said Mama, Dada, aball, anana and that was it. And he was DEFINITELY not saying those by 13 months, either.) And we were still told to give it another three months and come back if we didn’t see an improvement. And…okay, we didn’t see an improvement, and we went back, and were referred to Early Intervention. Who were extremely impressed, actually, that our pediatrician referred us so early. Most doctors will indeed wait much, much longer to bring up the possibility of a speech delay to parents. Late bloomers, late talkers, etc. This isn’t to say that’s a GOOD thing, the waiting-until-two-years-old-or-maybe-three, but…13 months? Oh, honey, don’t freak out just yet. Really.

The best, best, BEST book I have ever read on early speech development is “It Takes Two To Talk: A Practical Guide For Parents of Children With Language Delays”. Not a cheap book, no. $50. Textbook pricing. I borrowed a copy (deposit required!) from our county’s Early Intervention program while taking the accompanying Hanen program through them; you may be able to track down a secondhand copy online or through your library or pediatrician. But if you really, really want to understand how language develops and learn exactly how you “should” be talking to your child to help with that development — in super-breezy, easy-to-read terms — this book is amazing. (And amazingly simple, to the point of slapping your head after realizing that all you had to do is *tweak* your conversations with your child in the slightest way to maximize their expressive language responses.) You’ll also be able to pinpoint exactly where your child is in their language development and figure out whether your expectations are actually reasonable, and how best to help them move into the next stage of language use.

At 13 months, your child really (REALLY) doesn’t need to have a ton of vocabulary. Some kids do, and that’s fan-freaking-tastic for them. Some kids don’t. A lot of ’em, I’d wager. (Like I said, I was all kinds of blissfully ignorant at that age, when we didn’t even have YAH.) (Which is ADORABLE!) You mentioned your daughter will hold her arms out when she wants “up.” That! Right there! Big! Awesome! Expressive gestures ARE language: pointing, waving, clapping, etc. And here’s the thing: some kids don’t mimic. They aren’t going to parrot back whatever you say. Your daughter puts her arms out, you say UP, she thinks, “Yeah. Up. That’s what I want.” You’ve already gone and said the word/concept that she wants, so why in the world would she say it now? UP, WOMAN. WHAT YOU JUST SAID. GOD.

The Hanen book uses this dumb little acronym. O.W.L. Observe. Wait. Listen. You see your daughter with her arms out, or contemplating a ball, or pointing at the milk carton on the counter. You DON’T supply the word. You DON’T say “UP” or “BALL” or “Milk? You want milk? Milk? MILK MILK SAY MILK MMMMMMILK.” Instead, you say nothing. You wait. Waaaait. Maybe you gesture back. Point back. Let her (yeah, I know) get a little upset. Let her really understand why expressive language is important.

And then you listen. Maybe she’ll say, “Uh! Uh!” instead of “Up! Up!” Or some long mmmm sound instead of milk or SOME kind of verbal cue to express what she wants. After she makes an attempt at a sound, you can THEN supply the word and a heapload of praise and an immediate granting of her desire. Up. Milk. Juice. Whatever.

And oh, simplify. I was super guilty of this. She’s not ready for sentences yet — and she’s not going to get much from “Oh really? That’s so interesting, what else?” Hell, my almost-four-year-old still doesn’t know what to do with vague, open-ended questions like that. Strip your language down to simple, single words and ESPECIALLY sound effects. I’ll never forget after our first speech therapy session, the therapist told me to take Noah outside and blow bubbles some time that week, and spend the entire time focused on three words/sounds. 1) An exaggerated blowing sound, in hopes that Noah would mimic the puckering/blowing and work his mouth muscles, 2) The word “POP,” whenever the bubbles…you know, POPPED, and 3) the sign and word “MORE.” I felt like an IDIOT. I mean, Noah and I blew bubbles all the time! Are you telling me I was doing it WRONG, or something?

Well. I guess I was. I said nothing else besides POP and MORE, and it took exactly 15 minutes before my child popped a bubble, looked at me expectantly, and then when I failed to say what he was waiting for, said, “POP!” all by himself. Within 20 minutes he was signing for “MORE” after I put the wand back in the bottle and stared at him, pretending to have no idea what in the world he wanted. Give everything a sound: pop, woof, choo choo, vroom, etc. These seem to be more attractive to little ears and mouths than the proper nouns, which: WHO CARES.

And speaking of sign language…yeah, I was one of those people who thought baby sign language was just for the neurotic child-prodigy set, for the parents who needed an activity in between Chinese Mandarin and Baby Mensa Playgroup. And then my kid didn’t ever talk, and my pediatrician recommended teaching him some signs to ease both of our frustrations with the situation. We used the Signing Time DVDs (now available for streaming on Amazon) and within two or three viewings, the light bulb went off over Noah’s head. He signed “milk” one morning and my lands, I have NEVER gotten milk into anyone’s hands so quickly. He stared at the cup for a minute and I swear you could see the wheels turning and the pieces coming together and the huh. If you notice that your daughter really doesn’t make any close approximations of sounds no matter how long you wait for them, sign language might be a more natural transition from gestures to language, at least for her. And, you know, hundreds and thousands of kids who develop at their own pace, march to their own drum.

Look, I’m the LAST person on earth who wants to pull the “whatever, don’t overreact, don’t compare her to other kids” crap. I knew — KNEW– something was going on with Noah just…what? five or six months past your daughter’s age. I didn’t know exactly what was going on — I once heard someone describe speech therapy as the “gateway drug” to all the other many wonders of Early Intervention and SID and ASD, and damn, if that ain’t the truth — but my gut knew, and thankfully our doctor didn’t sweep my concerns away with a dismissive wave. So…this is NOT a dismissive wave.

Get your hands on the Hanen book (I had to return mine to the county or I’d mail it to you in a second), or something that someone in the comments recommends (I read a few speech delay books, I admit, but just flat-out got the most from Hanen). If you really don’t believe that she connects “Mama” with you, I’m not going to tell you that oh, PISH, everything’s fine. (Though I admit that’s a hard one to test out, especially when Mama is right there — the little ones LOVE to take our existence and presence for granted. Maybe get some picture cards or toys and test out other words? Like dog or car or ball? She may not point, but she might give you some indication that she does indeed connect words with objects.) Try out some sign language. Tell your pediatrician that you’re concerned at her next visit. Don’t panic, don’t freak out. Listen to your gut…but also make sure your gut isn’t engaged in a game of oneupmanship with the mommy next door with the potty-trained one-year-old who speaks in complete sentences on-demand like a performing-monkey child.

Photo by Richard-G

Related Articles:
Confronting Speech Delays Without Family Support
Food & the Sensory-Sensitive Child


Published June 29, 2009. Last updated December 13, 2017.
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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  • Laura SLP

    June 29, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Oh Amy, I love you. I’m new to your blog but I’ve really been enjoying it. And I read this question and, as a speech-language pathologist, thought “she should get the Hanen book” – before I even scrolled down to see that you were recommending the Hanen book. Great advice. Its the first thing I recommend to parents who are wondering about delays. 13 months is indeed early to make decisions, but the Hanen techniques are good for everyone.

  • Joceline

    June 29, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Another thing to keep in mind is that there is typically a big language explosion at around 18 months. I remember looking at my 17 month old son (who said a couple of words occasionally) and thinking “There is NO WAY he’ll be saying a whole bunch of words next month.” However, right around 18 months, the words started coming, and at 20 months, he’s learning new words every day. Just keep in mind that a couple of months for a kid so young makes a HUGE difference!

  • She Likes Purple

    June 29, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    I have to say, Amy, the more I read and the more I follow your story, the more I’m convinced you’re one of the best mothers on or off the Internet. You may have a pretty damn full plate, but you handle it with strength and grace and humor and it’s inspiring.

  • Natalie

    June 29, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    So early in the game, just be thankful that you don’t have a Speech-pathologist MIL giving you unwanted books/DVD’s/unwanted tips. We got all of those when I was still 5mo PREGNANT. *sigh*

  • Toddler Crafts Onna

    June 29, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    What Wonderful advice you give!! Who better to hear it from then a mom who has been through it. You really broke down some simple things all parents can do to help communicate with their child, even if there is not speech delay. The resources you suggest sound terrific.
    My daughter was tested at 2 (she had already been in early intervention) and received speech (still does) for articulation. It is amazing what you can learn from speech therapists!! They have the best tricks and coolest games to play with kids.
    If you have some creative kids- I am having an art contest from 6/29-7/10 on my blog- so stop on by and enter! There are great giveaways for moms too!!

  • Allison

    June 29, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    I would recommend (if you’re not already doing it) seeing if your school district offers Parents as Teachers. It’s a free program where a parent educator comes every 6 weeks and spends an hour with you and your child (or children if you have multiple under 3) and performs a series of activities to help determine if your child is meeting the appropriate milestones. It also helps identify if your child should go into early intervention. My son (who just turned 2) totally loves Ms. Kim, our parent educator, and it’s given us great peace of mind that if something were to be a concern, it’ll (hopefully) be identified early. I recommend it to everybody I know that has children under 3, or who is expecting.

  • Anna

    June 29, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    I don’t think I can say it better than Amalah, but..I have 3 kids. 1&2 both were making me and the ped nervous at their 15 month appointment, almost no words at all, no interest in signs, barely anything. But what my ped said at that point, which is what is keeping me from being nervous with my 19 m.o. who has a few words\signs, is to also pay attention to receptive language. Do they understand what you are saying? If you mention food, do they go for the highchair? Do they look at a person if you say the person’s name, etc. At 15 months, mine were starting to do those things. And the mama 19 m.o. says a few friends names, and abba (what we call daddy), and has for a bit. Mommy…she JUST started saying and so so rarely. Her siblings names…won’t do it. I think that since we are always around, she doesn’t quite see the need to say our names. As if we aren’t really quite separate from her. All this to say, do what you can to encourage words, but your baby sounds SO normal to me. I would push off freaking out for a few more months, and see what happens.

  • Alyssa

    June 30, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Whew. This post gave me relief I didn’t even know I needed. My son just turned 15 months and I am just starting to wonder about his speech. I read the question from the reader and I was like “Oh, shit… maybe I should be more worried. That’s two months younger than mine.”
    But he is doing a lot of the things you talked about in your response, he is finally starting to mimic our words and when I ask him where something/someone is I see his eyes find it (and then completely ignore it like “are you blind, chick? Dad’s sitting right next to you.”), he communicates in his own way. I have had the thought “maybe I’m just making it too easy for him”. When he puts his hand to his mouth I know he wants his pacifier, when he goes into the kitchen and cries I know he wants a drink, when he pulls at my shirt I know he wants to be held, etc. So you have given me some really good ideas on how to get the ball rolling.
    Thanks for the sigh of relief and the great ideas. I think I could definitely be more proactive about encouraging his speech but I never would have thought of some of that stuff. Some of that should just be common knowledge for mothers, you know? I wish we heard more about it.

  • Julie

    June 30, 2009 at 11:05 am

    I don’t even have kids, but I thought this was such an excellent answer I think I may print it out and save it for when I do! The idea about not supplying the word yourself and waiting for the child to say it sounds like common sense, but seriously, I would have never thought of it! LOL! This part “Maybe you gesture back. Point back. Let her (yeah, I know) get a little upset. Let her really understand why expressive language is important.” GENIUS. Yet so simple.
    Thanks Amy. And my future kids thank you, too. 🙂

  • Della

    June 30, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Yeah – like Julie said – it is so FREAKING hard not to supply the word. In the past month or so, I’ve been puzzling over this whole question myself, and kind of came to that conclusion myself. Why on earth would he have to say the word, if I’m saying it for him?!
    Of course, it should have come faster because I actually have a point of reference for this. As a child who knew 20+ words by 14 months (and have the list in my baby book to prove it), when my little bro came along, I appointed myself as his interpreter. When he was 2 years old and still only pointed and grunted, which I would then interpret to my mom, she finally made me shut my trap and would not give him anything until he at least attempted to say it. Even if I was sitting there insisting that MO-OMMM, I just TOLD you what he wanted. So yeah, I kind of have a history with this problem. 😛
    So, when it finally clicked with my son recently, I did the same thing. I would refuse to give him what he wanted until he either said or signed the goal word, or at least signed “please”. And it seems like he’s having more fun doing it, now, too – his vocabulary has tripled in a month. Which I’m sure is mainly developmental age, but also I think the light bulb went on that using words is useful.
    The last thing I wanted to add is that the baby doesn’t have to be saying something THE RIGHT WAY to be communicating. A weird fact: when my son was about 5-8 months old, he used to always say “ning” when he had a wet diaper. Every. Single. Time. We just knew, if he made that sound, it was diaper time. I don’t think it was a purposeful thing, but we recognized what it meant and we were able to respond to it.
    Now that he’s bigger, he doesn’t have any *spoken* words like that, but he does this weird Hail Hitler move (right arm straight up in the air and back down) when he wants a drink. Ok, kid, whatever! I shake my head and wonder where the heck it came from, but he’s consistent about it and we respond to it, so he uses it purposefully as his “word” for drink.
    So what I’m saying here is that sometimes maybe your child will surprise you with their own word for something, and if you think she’s doing it on purpose, responding to it as if it is valid will encourage her to continue communicating.

  • Heidi

    June 30, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Omigosh, THANK YOU AMY! I didn’t think my question would be chosen since you’re so busy & important and I’m…goofing off at work and clearly not TOO important.
    It never occured to me to just shut the F up and stop freaking the F out. I’m so relieved that she’s NORMAL. I don’t want some potty-trained, sentence speaking, cooler & smarter than YOUR KID CLEARLY child. Just a normal one, and thank GOD that’s what I got!
    And thanks to everyone else for your support!

  • Stef

    July 1, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Recommendation: don’t just talk to the kid, read to her. Pick a handful of short, simple books and read them all the time. I’m convinced that the repetition of hearing the same words over and over, from the comfort of Mommy’s lap, is what gave my son the idea to repeat the sounds and “read” along with me. If you can find it, try My Favorite Words. It’s about 8 pages of a picture, describing a picture, naming the picture. My son LOVED it.
    And don’t fret about her not saying Mommy. I’m convinced that young kiddos just don’t think to put a name to their moms. I mean really, do fish have a word for water?

  • Sherry Artemenko

    July 3, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Hi Amy,
    You’ve given a lot of helpful tips to parents concerned about a speech delay.
    I am a speech language pathologist with a blog, articles and children’s media reviews for language development. I have many tips on what to do if you are concerned about your child’s speech:
    or tips to get your toddler talking:
    Check out my website for helpful information
    Sherry Artemenko-SLP
    Editor: Thanks Shellye for your continued support of our community!

  • saron

    July 7, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you Amy for your helpful comments. I found your post while I am desperately searching for answers for my child’s situation. I have a 2 year old daughter who is neither talking nor responding for what we say to her. By imitating, she said her first word at her 9 month and she used to say more than 5 words till she is 18 month old. she understood the words and related them with actions. I noticed some strange signs right after her 18 month. I spoke to my husband about my concerns and to seek medical help. He discouraged me and told me “not to be paranoid since she is too young and she will talk more on her own time.” Through time, she preffered to be by herself and not be interested to play with other kids, not responding while talking to her, lost eye contact and Stragely enough she stopped saying all those words she used to say. Before she turns 2, we took her to see doctor. Her pediatrician refered her to audiologist and most of the test results shows that she has no any problems with her ears. he also refered her to speech pathologist and early intervention programs but there is a very long wait to get help from these professionals. what can I possibly do until we have access from the professionals? Is it normal to be like that for the 2 year old? I will definitely search the book and buy it.

  • Kate

    July 8, 2009 at 1:57 am

    I have 2 kids, the first was an “average” speaker (had that burst around 18 months but not much before), the second was speech delayed due to some physical oral motor issues (will not shut up after 18 months on speech therapy–ha!).
    Both benefited to the extreme from the Signing Time series. I started it with them young (6 months) and they signed back at 11 months and 13 months, respectively. BUT, toddlers have better dexterity and will pick it up faster. Anyway, they both had huge vocabularies from it. My daughter had 125 signs by about 21 months, when she really started talking more, and my son (the speech delay) had 200 signs by age 2. This was invaluable to me.
    Anyway, 13 months is early for chatting. To this day I am really shocked when I see toddlers that age with REAL, ACTUAL, DISTINCT words because my kids? Were so not like that. It was only around 18 months with my son that we started to get suspicious because he was really not making any consonant sounds, just vowels. (Then we had him evaluated and Early Intervention said he was too communicative (!!! in part because of the signing and his excellent receptive language) and we hauled ass to a college clinic and started therapy at 21 months.)
    So, to sum up: Signing Time (or any signing–there are free online ASL video dictionaries) kicks ass, speech delay or not. And it makes me a little sad they don’t sign any more.

  • babyblooze liz

    July 11, 2009 at 1:29 am

    I echo all of the complimentary comments here. My 17-mo son is in the 5-10 word arena but doesn’t say mama or dada — you have some GREAT ideas and I actually plan to do the bubble exercise this weekend. Really appreciate the advice

  • mamaellie

    June 29, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    I have been pretty convinced for some months now that my little guy is speech delayed. We are waiting because he seems to be developing fine otherwise. I often come back to this post for reassurance and just the feeling of not being alone. Thanks for this. Your blog reminds me that my little guy is our perfect and beautiful soul whether we can check all the “yes” boxes at the pediatrician ‘ office, or not.

  • Cris Simic

    December 28, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Hi… right to the point – my 13 month old is not even babbling. He went through a babble phase but stopped a few months ago. He makes a couple of Ba and Ma and Da noises but not often, mostly it’s just happy squeals and yells. He hardly cries and never attemts to talk or babble. He is very happy but I am a bit concerned now.

    so if your child is atleast babbling your bub is still more advanced than mine. Hoping my little angel will catch up soon and of course I talk to him alot. Oh and he does understand many words , he just has no interest in talking back (I’m sure I will look back on these months as precious once he is a foul mouthed teenager lol)