She chatters up a storm all day long, and you understand most of it.

What Is Considered a Speech Delay for a 3-Year-Old?

by Kathryn Rateliff Barr

Your mother-in-law complains she can’t understand your 3-year-old without an interpreter, although you have no problem most of the time. He trips over his words when he’s excited, mumbles when he’s in trouble or embarrassed, has trouble expressing his thoughts when he can’t find the right word and shrieks when playing with other children on the playground. Is he normal, or is your mother-in-law on to something? Knowing what is normal and what is considered a speech delay can set your mind at ease or help you to know when to get outside assistance.

1. Normal Behavior

By age 3, your child should be a chatter bug with more words than you can count. Every day brings new words if you read to her and spend time talking to her. Sometimes she speaks in short sentences containing three to six words. She understands more than she can say, and some days she understands more than you wish she does. She pesters you with questions all day, using words such as “who,” “what,” “where” and the ever present “why.” She fills you in on her activities, tells you stories and generally talks your arm off. Other people should be able to understand most of what she says, too, especially if they spend a lot of time with her.

2. Delayed Indicators

If your child is speech-delayed, he might not talk much on his own, and when he does it may be gibberish or repeated words and sounds he hears from you. His spoken and understood vocabulary is small and he might not understand simple directions or conversations, which can frustrate both of you when communication just doesn't seem to be happening. He might have unusual speech patterns that garble his words, so you understand him less than three-quarters of the time. If he seems significantly behind his peers in his ability to communicate with others, he may be speech-delayed.

3. Improving Speech

If you feel your 3-year-old is a little bit behind, talk and read to her, sing songs, point to various objects and tell her the name of the thing and talk to her about what you are doing as you do it. Look at picture books and ask her, “What’s happening there?” or “How is this picture different from the last one?” Make funny drawings or create an animal or person from bits and pieces of pictures and ask her, “What’s funny about this picture?” or “Do you see something that isn’t quite right?” Make time to listen to her stories, dramatize stories with her and engage her in repeating nursery rhymes and word plays. If you don’t understand what she says, ask her, “Could you say that again, please? I want to know what you are saying.”

4. Getting Help

If your child seems to be significantly behind his peers, ask his pediatrician or a learning specialist to give him a check up. Even if there isn't a significant delay, you might get some ideas on ways to help your child improve his speech patterns and comprehension. Some speech delays are a result of hearing problems, so your doctor may be able to help clear up any physical barriers to on-target speech. Ask your local school district about early childhood programs your child might qualify for and any testing they offer. Some speech problems might solved just by giving your toddler more time, but other causes for speech problems, such as global learning delays, hearing loss or oral-motor issues, can hinder his progress without professional help, so follow through until you get the answers you need.

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