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14:27 PM

Decoding your toddler

A speech pathologist on how to interpret your child’s ‘incomprehensible speech’

“Mama I wat fwoden on da bi tee bee and laks a widdle bit,” announces my daughter while eyeing me expectedly.

She is obviously looking for some sort of action on my part other than my smiling and nodding affirmatively. Since she’s my number one girl, I’ve learned the idiosyncrasies of her developing speech and know exactly how to handle this request. But to the layperson (or even Daddy or Grammy), I’m fairly certain I would need to come to the rescue with my toddler translator skills.

Mamas, I know you’ve been there. Your 3 year old launches into a monologue you find equal parts incomprehensible and adorable. Adorable, that is, until the tantrums and frantic attempts to understand and obey her demands kick in. In my practice, I have observed some masterful decoding mamas and some skillfully adaptive little ones navigating the waters of communication breakdown. Let’s talk a little bit about speech sound development and when to fret.

Articulation is the movement of the tongue, lips, soft palate and jaw to make speech sounds. It’s also the driving force behind your toddler’s incomprehensible speech. As parents, we are so excited when our little bundles of joy begin talking, but oftentimes, that excitement is quickly replaced with frustration when we realize we can’t understand a lick of what they’re saying.

An articulation disorder occurs when a child has difficulty forming speech sounds, most likely due to a structural or motor-based deficit. Most children tend to have some difficulty with certain speech sounds. Because creating sounds is challenging, he may substitute easy sounds for tough ones (think dumb for thumb), delete sounds (ha for hat), or distort problematic sounds (this is most often noted when children have a “slushy” quality). An articulation disorder occurs if these substitutions continue past the expected age.

Are all sounds created equal? In short, no. Children master sounds gradually. Most children can pronounce all of the speech sounds of English correctly by age 8. While each child’s speech sound acquisition is different, the following are age ranges in which most children master certain sounds:

  • Introducing the “early birds”: Most wee ones will use m, n, y, b, w, d, p and h correctly between 18-30 months. That may explain why mama, dada and ball are frequently reported as first words.
  • Not to be outdone, the middle of the road sounds includes: t, ng, k, g, f, v, ch and j. You may hear your little one utter these sound appropriately as early as 2 or as late as 6 years of age.
  • Finally, the late bloomers include: sh, zh, r, s, z and th. This final pack of sounds contains the frequent offenders when it comes to articulation disorders. They are challenging for children to master and can wreak serious havoc on the clarity of their speech. We expect children to master these sounds between the ages of 3-8. (Based on Shriberg, 1993)

As children get older and learn new speech sounds, they gradually become easier to understand by a wider variety of listeners. Developing clear speech is a journey for our littles, albeit a frustrating one at times. And like all journeys, no two are equal. Some children are clear as a bell by their second birthday while others need a bit more time. As parents, we typically understand our babes before the rest of the world and therefore, are awarded the esteemed role of toddler translator. In many situations, one parent has a better handle on their child’s speech sound system than the other. But, as a general rule of thumb (or rule of “fum” if you happen to be a toddler):

• By 2 years of age children can be understood by familiar adults most of the time.

• By 3 years of age children can be understood by unfamiliar adults most of the time.

• By 4 years of age children can be understood by unfamiliar adults almost all of the time.

• By 5 years of age children can be understood by unfamiliar adults all of the time.

(Based on Flipsen Jr, 2006)

Although a continuum exists when it comes to speech sound development, there are a few red flags to be mindful of when chatting with your child.

It may be time to check in with your pediatrician regarding an evaluation with a speech language pathologist if your child:

  • Uses only vowel sounds and a few consonants or shows limited babbling at 18 months.
  • Seems to have a “slushy” (think mouth full of marbles) quality to his speech.
  • Is difficult to understand and has a history of frequent ear infections.
  • Leaves off the beginning or ending sounds of words (hatàha).
  • Leaves off entire syllables of words (pa for purple).
  • Is not understood by people outside his immediate family by age 3.
  • Seems to be frustrated by his difficulty with speech or appears hesitant to interact or respond to peers or adults.

So what can you do to help him along?

Above all, it is important to always show your child you value WHAT he is saying regardless of HOW he is saying it. Always reinforce his attempts at striking up conversation with you! When you hear one of those adorable substitutions, help him to learn by repeating it correctly (If he says “tar” you can say “yes! A car!”) and moving on with the flow of conversation. Play face to face with him so he can watch the way your mouth moves to make sounds. Emphasize beginning and ending sounds in your own speech so he can hear them and begin to realize they are part of the word, too. If all else fails, ask him to SHOW you what he needs. And take comfort in the knowledge that this process is a gradual one.

Oh, and my daughter? She wanted to watch Frozen on the big T.V. and relax a little bit. Obviously.

1. Shriberg, L.D. (1993). Four new speech and prosody-voice measures for genetics research and other studies in developmental phonological disorders. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, (36), 105-140.

2. Flipsen, P., Jr (2006). Measuring the speech intelligibility of conversational speech in children. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, (20) 4, 303-312.


About the author

Amanda Fyfe is a speech-language pathologist at Cook Children's in Arlington and Mansfield. Speech/language pathologists focus on oral motor, speech, language and communication skills to enhance development, restore function and to prevent disability from pediatric conditions, illness or injury. Click here to find the closest Cook Children's Rehabilition Services near you.

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