In 2021, when Chennai-based, when Aruna Bhaskar’s son was 20 months old, he did not speak any word but only babbled sounds like ‘aaa,’ ‘aye,’ ’abba,’ and ‘baba’. Aruna was worried but her family and friends tried to alleviate her concerns.“It will sort itself out,” said some. “He will speak when he is ready,” said others. Some even suggested cutting down on screen time as a possible solution.
After a few months though, Bhaskar decided to visit a developmental paediatrician, who referred her to a speech therapist. After months of therapy, her son started speaking, and in a year, his language and communicative speech increased exponentially.
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A speech delay is when a child does not develop speech and language at the expected rate. A 2022 study by the Columbia University Irving Medical Center states that children born during the pandemic have nearly twice the risk of developmental delays, when compared to babies born before the pandemic.
When speech and language delays are not diagnosed, children miss out on vital support during the early years, and this can hamper their progress and social well-being. An assessment is crucial to rule out any developmental delays. The younger the child is, the more possible it is for the brain to change, learn and rewire itself with therapy.
“Oral language is a strong predictor of reading and writing in later stages,” says Dr. Preeja Balan, a speech therapist and director of Octave Hearing and Speech Centre in Bengaluru. “Children with delay in speech and language should be monitored till the early literacy years.”
Track your child’s milestones
If you’re worried that there is a delay in the onset of your child’s first words, the best way to check for delays is to keep track of your child’s milestones. To do this, you can use a milestone tracker. The CDC’s milestone app is a good place to start but if you are looking closer to home, you could refer to the Totsguide, a paid developmental tracker app created by Dr. Nandini Mundkur, a Bengaluru-based developmental paediatrician.
It is important to check if your child is hitting her milestones on time. If not, you should consult your paediatrician or a developmental paediatrician immediately.
It is also important to evaluate your baby’s hearing in the first few months — a practice that is mandatory with newborns in many countries outside India — to diagnose any possible hearing loss. After all, hearing is important for the development of speech and communication.
Don’t just wait for the magical first word
You may eagerly wait for your child to utter that important first word, but there are some other other crucial signs of speech and language development to watch out for.
Speech should be looked at as an essential part of communication, and not in isolation, says Dr Koyeli Sengupta, a developmental paediatrician and the director of Autism Intervention Services at Ummeed Child Development Center in Mumbai. “Receptive communication is when a child understands what is being said to him and responds,” she says, adding that when watching out for milestones, one needs “to look at both expressive and receptive communication.”
For instance, an important milestone that is linked with speech and language development is ‘joint attention’. When your child is eight or night months old, and you point to a crow outside your window and say the word “crow”, does your child look at what you are pointing to? This is called responding to ‘joint attention’.
If a child doesn’t engage in it, however, you need to find out more. Does your child say a word with intent and a purpose? This matters more than the number of words that a child is able to say.
Speak meaningfully with your children
In 2017, when he was two years old, Bengaluru-based Manisha Singh's younger son was diagnosed with speech difficulties. While cutting down on screen time helped, there was something else that played a hand in his progress.
“What truly helped a lot was when my older son talked to my younger son constantly, even (when there wasn’t) any response from him,” Singh recalls. “He would even accompany us for all the therapies and would be able to get through to my younger son much more than any of us could,” she adds. Speaking to our children helps expands their language capacity but shared communication increases it exponentially.
As new parents, some of our loveliest moments are when we engage meaningfully with our children. “Right from the beginning, language should be a sensorial and interactive experience,” says Dr Sengupta. “It is meant to be developed in the context of happy, friendly, engaged relationships between children and their caregivers. It is important to understand this because as parents, we tend to think that languages develop just by watching a lot of educational videos or simply by speaking a lot to the child. Follow your child’s interest and be part of your child’s game, and include language in everything you do right from the beginning,” she stresses.
This shared communication extends to following your intuition about your child. Before my child was diagnosed with learning difficulties, I had a strong feeling that something did not add up about how she interacted with me, even when her teachers dismissed my worries and told me to give her time to reach her potential. As parents, it is important to trust our instinct with our children and to seek help when we think that something is amiss.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist who lives in Mumbai.