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Signs your child could need speech therapy

From baby babble to pre-school chatter, language skills are crucial for children to communicate. Here’s what to do if your child isn’t meeting speech milestones.

When Donita Richards’ son, Louis, was 2 and a half, he wasn’t speaking much and often jumbled his sounds. But Louis understood everything she said to him, so the family held off getting help or advice.

“We just wanted to give him a little bit of time,” she says. “And he also has 2 older brothers who speak for him!”

When the educators at Louis’ childcare centre told her they had trouble understanding him, Donita and her husband, George, knew they had to do something, and contacted a speech pathologist who specialised in children. “We didn’t like the thought of his friends not being able to understand him, and him possibly getting picked on later at school.”

What is a speech pathologist?

Speech pathologists study, diagnose and treat people with communication difficulties, explains Jane Delaney, a senior advisor in early childhood and education at Speech Pathology Australia. “That can include difficulties with speech, language, fluency, voice and swallowing.”

Children generally develop sounds in a particular order and it’s normal to take longer to master certain ones. “For example, ‘s’ is a later-developing sound and a small child may swap it for a simpler sound,” Jane says. “They may say ‘tun’ instead of ‘sun’ until they develop the sound and start to self-correct.”

Signs your child could have a speech disorder

While it’s normal for some children to take longer to speak or need more time to develop language skills, persisting difficulties may suggest a bigger issue. Queensland Health recommends seeking advice if your child isn’t meeting their speech milestones, is having trouble communicating or isn’t keeping up with children of the same age. Sometimes the problem may be related to hearing disorders, which may need professional assessment.

Up to 6% of primary school-aged children have a ‘speech sound disorder’, and 7% of Australian children have a developmental language disorder (known as DLD).

Both of these conditions can indicate a child may have difficulties understanding or using spoken language, and some may be at a higher risk of developing dyslexia.

When should a child start speech therapy?

It’s important to get professional support as early as possible. “If children start school with language difficulties, they may not understand what’s happening in the classroom or they may have trouble speaking to their peers, which can impact their social development,” Jane says. “This can also impact their self-esteem and mental health.”

So, how can parents know when they need to get help? “If a parent has a child who has limited language, is experiencing frustration in communicating, has trouble understanding what their parents are saying or is difficult to understand, then that would be the time to seek assistance,” Jane advises.

Some parents take a ‘wait and see’ approach to their child’s development, but experts say seeking professional help sooner for any speech-related problems can lead to better results.

“Sometimes that [approach] works because some children just need that little bit more time,” says speech pathologist Nicole Hadlow from not-for-profit Telethon Speech & Hearing. “But even by the age of 3, children with difficulties require a lot more support.”

“It’s so empowering working with families to build confidence in supporting their child’s development,” Nicole adds. “And to see the joy that comes from being able to communicate with them.”

Speech milestones for kids

Here, Nicole gives a rough guide to the language milestones most kids are meeting by age.

  • 18 months – Children can usually say some single words. Make sure your child can understand simple commands like “stop” or “go and get the ball”.
  • 2 years – Children usually start to put 2 words together, like “more please”. Some also start to understand simple questions that begin with “who” and “what”.
  • 3-5 years – Children can usually put more words together, follow more complex instructions, sort items into groups, develop more speech sounds and tell a simple story.

Does speech therapy really work for children?

After finding a “fantastic” speech pathologist for Louis, Donita says her young son had on-and-off sessions over the couple of years that followed, and even took part in telehealth sessions.

“I think the speech work will help him in school because he’s now very familiar with the letters and can spell and write his name,” says Donita.

How to find the right kind of help

Does your child have difficulty with language? You may be eligible to claim for speech pathology visits or telehealth consultations – log in to online member services or call us on 13 13 34 to check your cover.

Words by Laura McGeoch
This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of
Health Agenda magazine

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