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  • At 18 Months, My Daughter Still Had No First Words. What I Wish I Knew Then

    A mom shares the five things she wish she knew when she found out her child had speech delays.
    by Thalia Valerio .
At 18 Months, My Daughter Still Had No First Words. What I Wish I Knew Then
PHOTO BY iStock
  • I still remember the moment I realized that our daughter had a speech delay. I was showing her my Lola’s orchids saying, “Look Rei, flowers! Can you say flowers?” She wasn’t interested and didn’t respond. It dawned on me that she was 18 months old and had no words, not even “mama” or “dada.” I started to get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

    5 things I wish I had known about speech delays

    That day marked the beginning of an ongoing 13-year journey with developmental delays. It would be another three years until she would say her first words, and there is a lot I wish I had known then. It would have saved us so much time, money, and anguish. On the off chance that someone may invent the time machine, here are five of the things I would tell young mothers worried about language and speech delays:

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    1. Speech delays are not created equal.

    The first question that pops into your head after you discover that your child has a speech and language delay is, “Why is this happening?” The short answer to that question is — it depends. There are several different reasons why a child may not begin to speak on time.

    Some children just talk late. Albert Einstein is a famous example; he didn’t speak until he was 4 years old. In the book Late-Talking Children, Stephen Camarata Ph.D., explains children with this kind of speech delay have some traits in common. They babble, understand language, communicate using gestures, imitate adults, socialize, and engage in pretend play. Many often score highly on non-verbal tests of intelligence, and they eventually start to speak on their own without any intervention.

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    Other children with speech delays have had frequent ear infections. Do you know how water gets trapped in your ear while swimming? Then there is a distorted echo in your head when you talk? That can also happen to children after a nasty cold or cough. Fluid trapped in the inner ear disrupts a child’s ability to hear themselves clearly, which is essential for normal language development.

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    Some children have speech delays that are related to issues with how the brain processes speech, or there can be underlying conditions like autism or Down’s syndrome. So how is a parent to know which it is?

    Unless you are a trained professional, it is hard to read the subtle non-verbal clues that differentiate what is causing the speech delay. It is best to get an evaluation by a developmental pediatrician and qualified speech therapist and ask if your child needs intervention.

    2. Sometimes Google is not your friend.

    I’m a nerd. I love research, and I love the internet. Whether it’s a leche flan recipe, parenting advice or updates on current events, I can find the information I need with a few keystrokes.

    However, when it came to speech delays, the internet failed me. I spent the better part of a year searching for “speech delay” and “language delay” on Google, endlessly combing through links. In the end, I was no closer to helping my child.

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    I now understand why. From the time a child enters the world until he learns to speak, his brain is changing — different areas are developing and working together. Dealing with developmental issues is like trying to figure out how to fly a plane. You need to understand how things work before you can do it yourself. It’s not the kind of thing you can squeeze into a Wiki-how article.

    One day, when I was feeling a bit desperate, I reached out online to see if any early intervention professionals could spare an hour to offer me advice. A couple offered time. As soon as I met with them, I wished I had done it sooner. They had all the answers to my most pressing questions and gave me immediate, practical information that I could act on.

    Our family and friends care about our children and have their best interests at heart, but they may not be equipped with the necessary background knowledge to help you identify or address the unique challenges your child is facing.

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    Whenever possible, I highly recommend seeking out professionals for advice. Ask for a referral, someone who won’t mind sitting with you for a cup of coffee and talking to you for free. Don’t feel embarrassed! Developmental science is not common knowledge. Any decent specialist will appreciate and encourage your need for information. Bring all your questions and leave your kid at home. Go back twice if you need to (being respectful of course of their time and generosity).

    I also wish I had connected earlier with other parents who are going through the same thing. In the beginning, I didn’t want to. It felt like an admission of defeat like I was betraying my child. This was another big mistake. Other parents referred us to all of the best professionals who worked with my daughter. Other parents also gave me simple tips and tricks I could try at home to help with language development.

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    Most importantly, they were an immense source of comfort. It was such a relief to know that I was not alone.

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    3. Gadget use can aggravate speech and language delays.

    Like most parents, I struggle to regulate gadget time for myself and my children. I keep at it because I know that excessive screen time is not good for the brain. It is especially bad for children with speech delays.

    Verbal communication is a two-way process, like a game of catch. One person puts words into a message and tosses the message to the receiver.  The receiver catches and processes the message, puts words into a response and tosses that back, and so on.

    Online games, videos, TV, and movies are one-way communication. They entertain children but fail to engage the speech-related parts of the brain. They encourage the child to stay in their own bubble, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 should not use gadgets, other than to video chat. Toddlers and preschoolers should spend no more than 1 hour a day in front of a screen (30 minutes in the morning, and 30 minutes in the afternoon).

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    I try to be honest with myself about our gadget use and monitor the family carefully. Some days are better than others. Whenever possible, I save tech time as an evening reward and plan other activities, to minimize the temptation to plug into a device. If our usage is getting out of hand, I install app blockers on all our phones and tablets.

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    4. The alphabet is not directly related to speech development.

    When I was still trying to figure out how to help my daughter, I had an idea — teach her the alphabet! That’s part of the language, right? I got a bunch of expensive flash cards with letters on them and tried to introduce them to my daughter. They didn’t help.

    It turns out that the alphabet has no involvement in how we learn to speak. It is a prerequisite for learning how to read. Speaking and reading are different brain processes.

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    Talking to your child, often using simple language is a better way to help with speech delays. Instead of the alphabet, you can also try nursery rhymes. Choose songs that identify things in your child’s environment, like “The wheels on the bus” or “This is the way we…”

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    5. When parents get training, children do better.

    I wish there were more support for parents of children with developmental delays. I am often surprised and dismayed at how little practical information is available for parents, especially when we consider that we are the ones who need it the most.

    Parents have good instincts, and when we have access to support, training, and useful information, our children have the chance to make gains faster. We can confidently advocate for them, make decisions more quickly, and practice speaking at home in specific and targeted ways.

    Communication skills directly impact our child’s ability to learn and connect with us and the world at large. Parents need background information so that they can act quickly.

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    As far as developmental delays go, I have been very fortunate. We have worked with exceptional professionals who pointed us in the right direction, every step of the way. It is my goal now to pay this forward by helping other parents who find themselves on this journey.

    One last thing I would tell my past self, and perhaps all parents facing language delays, is this — there is hope. The paths through developmental delays are not always clear or easy, but there are paths. You can make a difference for your child.

    Thalia Valerio is the founder of All Minds, an online resource center for parents of children with developmental disabilities. Get 40% off on her “Building Connections” program, a three-week online class designed to provide guidance for parents facing speech and language delays. Just register with the discount code “SMART40” before July 12, 2019. Visit all-minds.com for more information.

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