Mum’s the Word: Communicating With a Speech Delayed Toddler

The word purple sent me to tears. I couldn’t explain why, but I sat in my kitchen crying until my husband wandered in and found me huddled over. I continued crying as I was trying to figure out how to, rather ironically, communicate how I was feeling. I told him about the videos and posts I was constantly seeing on social media of children Aria’s age and younger who were taking off with their vocabulary. I loved seeing updates from friends and family, but anything hinting at speech seemed to send me over the edge. Comparison was hard to resist. What was I doing wrong and why was I failing? As a mother, I carried these emotions on my back, weighed down by the guilt.

Aria at her second birthday spoke approximately ten words: mama, dada, shoe, banana, apple, bye, hi, baby, no, and boo. We noticed hints of a speech delay by her 18 month check-up, but her pediatrician assured us not to worry. Kids develop at different rates, they said, so continue working on it and be patient. We continued for a few more months, hoping to connect the pieces with speech and communication by increasing our time spent reading, singing and listening to music, and guided playtime. By July, we decided that it was time for early intervention. A speech therapist began to visit once a week, but the progress seemed slow.

Again, I was being met with feelings of frustration and failure. My goal was for Aria to be able to communicate basic needs. I wanted her to be able to tell us if she was hungry, thirsty, or tired. There had to be something that I wasn’t doing, and in the midst of it all, we were approaching her second birthday with the impending doom of the terrible two’s. With toddlers come tantrums, but I felt strongly that a large portion of her tantrums were coming from being hungry, thirsty, or tired and not knowing how to communicate it. I was frustrated, but Aria was also frustrated. I was fearful that disciplining would risk any progress we had made and naturally, those in close range wanted to help with advice. I began to feel like no one was understanding our specific situation.

“I know someone who had a child that didn’t speak until they were much older, stop worrying.”

“Maybe you should try this instead…”

“I don’t know why you’re so fixated on her talking. Once she starts, she’ll never stop.”

“Have you tried doing this?”

Knowing it all was being said in hopes of helping us, I tried to trudge through the remarks by warily nodding my head as though I hadn’t already explored very possible avenue with research, expert opinions, and prayer.

We were continuously assured to take it day by day with the tips given to promote speech. As speech therapy continued, I still felt as though there was something missing – that last puzzle piece. We had maintained play dates throughout the pandemic with Aria’s cousins, but we realized that perhaps for her, she needed more socialization with other kids. Then, we started daycare.

Sending Aria to daycare caused an incredible amount of anxiety, but ultimately paired with our improvement of speech focused activities at home and speech therapy, her speech began to pick up. We are still trying just as hard with communication, but now she can tell us when she wants something, what she wants (to an extent), and is more clear about how she is feeling. Now at 27 months, we are about to reach our 50 word mark, and this last week her favorite word has been, “dinosaur!”

Being the parent of a speech delayed child hasn’t been easy, especially when it is so apparent that they have so much they want to say. Regardless, I’ve found what our pediatrician and speech therapist said to be true – it all takes time, patience, and trusting your child to speak when they’re ready.

Here are some tips that we’ve found to be extremely helpful!

  1. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. It is all about repetition.
  2. Allow opportunities for them to communicate: we do often do this by allowing choices (ex: Do you want an apple or an orange?).
  3. Read books: we will often read through any books that Aria pulls from the shelf, which turns out to be a lot. She has gotten more into the habit of looking at the pages rather than turning them, so we now talk about what is on each page.
  4. Listen to music: our pediatrician suggested having music playing in the background whenever she is engaging in independent play and we’ve found that Aria enjoys this. Her favorite song is Baby Shark.
  5. Guided play: playing with her while also talking through it has helped her to identity objects and actions. She runs to grab her tea cups whenever we say, “tea time!”
  6. Learn and teach sign language: we never considered this until the speech therapist suggested it and Aria picked it from daycare. With the signing she learned, she began to speak along with it. She mostly signs and says, “all done” and “more.”

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