Communication delays in children: supportive advice and guidance for parents
With good communication important to so many aspects of a life, parenting a child who finds this tricky can be a real challenge. Mum of one Jenna Farmer, whose son has a speech delay, discusses the rise in children who have speech and communication issues, and how families can best support them to help them thrive
Whether it’s the first time you hear ‘mama’, or perhaps a shrill ‘NO!’, the memories made when your child begins to talk can be really exciting. But, for some parents, these milestones can take much longer to happen. If you’re concerned about your child’s speech and communication development, then you might have already spent some time on Google. But what does it actually mean, and how can you get the right support for your child? As a mum to a three-year-old who is speech delayed, I chat to the experts about the rise in children who need some help communicating.
What is speech and communication delay?
Speech and communication delay is a broad term that covers a range of different causes for why your child’s speech and communication skills may be late to emerge.
The term ‘delay’ can sound scary, but it’s really just a way for you to understand if your child needs a helping hand. What’s ‘normal’ can really vary, but there are a few key things to look out for which may help you figure out if your child might need support.
Speech therapist Joanne Jones explains: “In general, we advise reaching out to access support if you have an 18-month-old who isn’t babbling, or isn’t trying to get their message across; a two-year-old who isn’t putting words together; or a three-year-old who isn’t yet able to have a two-way conversation or tell you about their day.” If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, having a chat with your health visitor could be a good idea.
Why might a child experience speech and communication delays?
This current generation of school and nursery starters have experienced part of their lives in lockdown, and recent Ofsted reports have found the Covid pandemic could definitely impact key communication skills, with half of four-year-olds not ready for school. In fact, a survey from Kindred2 revealed that 91% of teachers say at least one child in their class does not have basic language skills.
It’s reassuring to hear I’m not the only one experiencing this as a parent. But why has it had such an impact?
“There’s definitely more children having difficulties right now – schools and nurseries that I attend have said they would previously have one or two children in their class with significant communication delays, and now it’s more like five or six. This definitely is partly due to lockdown, but from talking to parents, they were finding it very difficult to access early support during this time too,” says Joanne Jones, who runs The Can-Do Bootcamp, a support group for parents who are often waiting to access NHS therapy.
That’s not to say this is the only cause of speech delay. Some children simply take a little longer to talk, and quickly catch up. While for others, speech delay is part of other conditions. These include autism, hearing difficulties, and verbal dyspraxia (a condition where children struggle to coordinate the right mouth movements to speak clearly).
How can speech and communication delay impact parents?
It’s important to acknowledge that living with a child who struggles to communicate can impact everyone in the family.
“Children who can’t communicate have a feeling as to what they need, and are more likely to be withdrawn or disruptive because they’re unable to communicate,” says parenting expert Sue Welby, of Little Life Steps.
Parents can understandably find this really hard to deal with. I, myself, struggled with comparison and guilt at the start of our speech delay journey, and would often ask myself, ‘Am I a bad mum? Is there more I could be doing for my son?’
But it’s normal for parents whose child has a speech delay to feel frustrated and upset at times. “Lots of parents I speak with get triggered when their children struggle with listening skills and following instructions (these are all key for communication). Having some tools parents can use, such as positive self-talk, or even just going to get a glass of water to take a pause, are important,” adds Sue.
Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) expert Georgina Durrant says these feelings are normal and very common: “Parents I support share concerns about both day-to-day life now, as well as worries over their child’s future.”
However, finding a community of those going through the same thing can be vital.
“It’s so important to find other families who share the same concerns, and speaking to others, especially those who have speech, language, and communication delays, is really helpful,” Georgina adds. There are several online communities and Facebook groups that are centred around speech delay, or your health visitor may be able to refer you to group classes. which can be a good way to meet other parents in the same boat.
Top tips for supporting your child’s speech and communication
Speech therapist Joanne Jones shares her top five tips to help your child’s speech and communication…
1. If you’re concerned, I advise getting a referral sooner rather than later – don’t wait and see. We can do so much with early intervention.
2. Don’t ask your child to say or repeat things. It’s tempting, but it’s more effective to input the words they would like to say.
3. Try to build more play opportunities into your day. The three ‘Ms’ are mess, movement, and manipulation. Get them moving around, making a mess, and touching and feeling lots of different objects!
4. Balance play time and screen time. Don’t feel guilty about screen time, but getting a good mix between types of play and screen time can help.
5. Not all communication is words, so make sure you listen carefully to what your child is showing you. It might be a gesture, a facial expression, using symbols, or Makaton signing. It’s all valid.
Speech and communication delay can be a challenging thing for both you and your child to navigate. It’s important to know that there is support out there if you’re experiencing this. Speak to your GP or health visitor. You can also visit ICAN for more information and support, or The Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice to find a qualified speech therapist.