Relax, parents: most late-talking toddlers turn out fine

Toddlers who develop speaking skills later than their peers are no more likely to experience behavioural or emotional problems, a study found. Flickr/Duncan H
Anxious parents take note: a toddler who develops speaking skills later than his or her peers is no more likely to develop lasting behavioural problems than any other child, a study has found.

Two-year-olds normally know around 50 words and have started making two or three word sentences but observing an unusually silent toddler can cause a parent to worry, said lead researcher Associate Professor Andrew Whitehouse from the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research at the University of Western Australia.

“Having a child who is not talking as much as other children can be very distressing for parents. Our findings suggest that parents should not be overly concerned that their late-talking toddler will have language and psychological difficulties later in childhood,” he said.

The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, examined 1387 children, of which 9.9% were classed as late-talkers.

The assessments were done as part of the long running Raine Study, which began in 1989 and has involved check-ups on the childrens’ development at ages 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 14 and 17 and 20.

The late-talkers were recorded as experiencing increased levels of behavioural and emotional problems at two years of age but the difficulties did not last.

“We suggest that the behavioural and emotional problems identified at two years are due to the psychosocial difficulties of not being able to communicate, such as frustration,” said Dr Whitehouse.

“However, when the late-talking children ‘catch-up’ to normal language milestones – which is the case for the majority of children by school-age – the behavioural and emotional problems are no longer apparent.”

Some children, however, do continue to struggle with language into their school-age years, which can lead to more serious behavioural problems and is a signal that help should be sought, said Dr Whitehouse.

The best that most parents can do, he said, is try to create an environment where language and communication are part of everyday learning and play.

“This means getting down on the floor and playing their child, talking with them, reading to them, interacting with them at their level.”