Q&A: 15 Month Old May Be Behind in Language Development

CME WebsitesChild Development, Toddlers 12 - 36 Months

blockquote_bgI have a 15 month old son who is not quite walking yet, but has no problem cruising at this point. A recent visit to our pediatrician suggested to us that he may be also behind on language development as well. He is extremely aware and seems bright; however, he has only said “dada” and “hi” up to this point (that we can understand). He is generally a happy baby who seems to interact with other toddlers and us, but we are concerned about his communication skills at this point more than anything. He reaches for things he wants, he goes to things he wants to get them, but he doesn’t do things like crawl to the refrigerator and point at it when he wants a bottle. We read to him and interact verbally with him on a daily basis. He enjoys language and having books read to him. We have done flash cards with him as well, and he can recognize and say back the word “hi” when prompted. I am confident he will be walking soon; he stands up and moves around no problem, even jumping up and down when excited. Should we be doing anything at this point to intervene?

Since you mention that your son is cruising and working on independent walking, it is not uncommon for children to put speech “on hold” while learning to walk. Speech is also a motor skill, and many babies who are learning to walk are focusing all that energy on walking, so they may be quieter and speech production may slow down during this period. At age 15-16 months most children are saying Mama and Dada specifically to refer to their parents, as well as saying a few other single words or word approximations such as “ba” for ball or “ju” for juice.

They should be using gestures to communicate as well, such a pointing or gesturing to get wants/needs met. For example, if your son’s cup is on the table and he can’t reach it, he should be gesturing or pointing to it and vocalizing (even if not using true words) to get your attention that he wants his cup. He should also be following a few simple commands such as “Get your ball” or “give me the book”. I am glad your son enjoys books and this is a wonderful way to encourage language with him simply by letting him turn pages and having you identify pictures for him. Encourage him to point to or pat pictures as you name them and be a good language role model for him by expanding on any sounds or words he may say. For example, if he says “ba” when he sees a ball, you can say “You found the red ball!”. You can also use music and finger plays to encourage speech, such as singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Wheels on the Bus” using hand gestures.

I would also recommend to start moving away from the bottle and teaching him to drink from a non-spill straw cup to help with speech production (it’s also better for his teeth). If your child has mastered using a regular sippy cup with a spout lid, then speech    therapists recommend using a straw cup and eventually moving to an open cup rather than always relying on sipper/spout cups. Drinking from a straw or open cup is a much more mature oral motor movement and is more beneficial for speech production than sucking from a bottle or spouted cup. When a child constantly uses a regular sippy cup their tongue tends to rest under the spout, which promotes tongue thrust, which can sometimes have adverse effects on speech or    articulation skills. A straw cup promotes lip closure, oral motor control and strength. If you would like more suggestions on how to    promote independent walking skills, you can refer to this link, where we have answered several recent questions on the topic.