What is speech and language delays?

Language delay

Language delay means that a child is not able to use words or other forms of communication to share thoughts and feelings at the expected ages.

Children with language delays may not be able to talk or use other methods to communicate with other people. For example, they may not to able to use gestures such as smiling, waving their hands, or nodding their heads. They may also have problems understanding what other people say to them.

Language delays in children may have many different causes, including hearing problems, intellectual disability caused by Down syndrome or other genetic conditions, or mental health conditions.

Speech therapy is usually the main treatment for language delays.

What are some signs of a delay in speech and language development?

If your child doesn't reach speech and language milestones as expected, it might not mean that something is wrong. Each child grows and gains skills at their own pace. But not reaching milestones can be a sign of a problem (delay) with speech and language development. Your child should be checked by a doctor.

Language delays include problems understanding what is heard or read (receptive language delays) or problems putting words together to form meaning (expressive language delays). Some children have both speech and language delays.

Signs of a speech or language delay may include:

  • No babbling by 9 months.
  • No first words by 15 months.
  • No consistent words by 18 months.
  • No word combinations by 24 months.
  • Slowed or stagnant speech development.
  • Problems understanding your child's speech at 24 months of age, or strangers having problems understanding your child's speech by 36 months of age.
  • Not showing an interest in communicating.

Talk to your doctor anytime you or another caregiver has concerns about your child's speech and language development. Also talk to your doctor if you think there may be another problem that affects your child's speech or understanding of language. These problems may include:

  • Excessive drooling.
  • Problems sucking, chewing, or swallowing.
  • Problems with control and coordination of lips, tongue, and jaw.
  • Stuttering that causes a child embarrassment, frustration, or problems with peers.
  • Poor memory skills by the time your child reaches kindergarten age (5 to 6 years). Your child may have trouble learning colors, numbers, shapes, or the alphabet.
  • Not responding when spoken to, or not reacting to loud noises.
  • A sudden loss of speech and language skills. Loss of abilities at any age should be checked right away.
  • Not speaking clearly or well by age 3.

What are some common myths about speech and language delays?

Significant speech and language delays are directly related to developmental or health issues. But some people blame speech and language delays on things that aren't the cause of true delays, such as:

Developmental differences.

Mild and temporary speech delays can occur. And some children learn new words faster than others do. But if your child isn't saying words by 18 months, or can say fewer than 50 words by 24 months, talk to your doctor. Don't assume that delays are the result of normal differences in development.


It's instinct for young children to practice speech and language as these skills emerge. They don't hold back out of laziness. But intimidation, stress, fear, or other problems may delay their speech.

Having older siblings.

Younger children may start to talk slightly later than their older brothers or sisters did. But having one or more older siblings doesn't cause significant speech and language delays.

Being a boy.

Girls usually are ahead of boys in language development after the first year, but there is only a slight difference. Significant delays aren't caused by gender.


Children raised in bilingual homes may have a slight delay in starting to speak. They also may mix both languages until they are about 3 to 4 years old. After that, they usually speak both languages well. Children who grow up in bilingual homes don't have more trouble learning to talk, read, and write than those who are learning one language. In fact, learning two or more languages at a young age may boost a child's overall ability to learn.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.