Oral-motor difficulties are common causes of pronunciation problems.

What Causes Pronunciation Problems Among Small Children?

by Cara Batema

When your child first learned to speak, his lisp or the fact that he called his blanket a “bankey” were endearing and adorable. However, when your child didn’t grow out of such mispronunciations, you probably moved quickly into the worry zone. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the inability to produce speech sounds correctly or fluently defines a speech disorder. Finding the cause of pronunciation problems can lead to more effective treatment for your child.

Oral-Motor Problems

According to KidsHealth, many children with speech delays have oral-motor problems, which is ultimately a neurological condition -- so know your toddler or preschooler is not necessarily mispronouncing words to drive you crazy. Various areas of the brain responsible for speech production do not communicate with each other effectively, and your child might have trouble moving his lips, tongue or jaw in the necessary way to pronounce sounds. For example, you might notice your toddler has difficulty pronouncing “S” sounds, which might be a result of him having trouble pushing his tongue against the back of his front teeth, a necessary movement for making the correct sound.

Developmental Disorders

Speech disorders are commonly found among children with developmental disorders, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or learning disability. Since many developmental disorders involve impairments in the brain, the likelihood of oral-motor difficulties occurring is high. It might be easy for you to jump to conclusions and join the panic-stricken mothers who think their little one has a disorder, but a speech problem is just one sign of a possible developmental disorder. Sounds like “M,” “N,” “P,” “B,” “T” and “D” are easiest to make, according to International Children’s Education, and they are typically acquired by age 3. Consistently mispronounced sounds like these are signs of a speech disorder, and possibly a more “global” developmental delay, according to KidsHealth.

Oral Impairments

Physical problems like oral impairments, including conditions of the tongue or palate, can also cause pronunciation problems in small children. According to KidsHealth, for example, a short frenulum, or the fold of skin beneath the tongue, can hinder speech production -- just don’t try to put a ruler in your toddler or preschooler’s mouth to measure it. A less serious issue could be a general weakness of the muscles of the mouth and tongue -- imagine trying to say “book” when you can’t purse your lips forward to make the “oo” sound.

Hearing Loss

If you notice pronunciation problems in your toddler or preschooler, make sure your doctor tests your child’s hearing. Your child’s mispronunciation might be a result of not hearing words properly -- if he doesn’t understand what you’re saying, his imitation of you will be skewed. Frequent ear infections can cause hearing loss, which increases the risk of speech disorders, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

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