Speech and language development is a complicated thing. No two children develop in the same way or at the same pace but we trust that they will figure it out and get there in the end. But what happens if things start to veer a little off track? Should you worry? Or should you just take a deep breath and give it more time?

If you google something along the lines of “My 2 year old isn’t talking”, you will probably find a suggestion to see a speech pathologist somewhere in the search results. Overwhelmingly though, I’m sure you will see lots of responses telling you not to worry and that everything will be ok.

Frankly, that terrifies me. I completely understand where these “don’t worry” types of responses are coming from. Generally speaking, people want to help. If someone seems stressed or anxious we want to make them feel better, not add to their worry. We tend to take a glass is half full approach and retell the stories with good outcomes and results whilst sometimes glossing over (if not completely omitting) the ones without such a happy ending.

There will be plenty of kind reassurances such as, “don’t worry, boys talk later than girls” or “second children always talk later than firstborns”. There will be anecdotes along the lines of, “my child didn’t say a word until they were 4 and then just started speaking in full sentences” or “The doctors were pushing me to get her assessed but I didn’t bother and she is perfectly fine now”. Perhaps there will even be a mention about how “it’s normal for twins to speak later” or a comment on how “children learning more than one language talk later than their peers”.

There is an element of truth in some of these points. For instance, studies have shown that boys do tend to learn their first words later than girls BUT they still learn them within the normal timeframes1. Additionally, in my experience I have seen children who were late talkers and upon further investigation found that everyone in the family was so busy anticipating the child’s needs and talking for them that the child never needed nor had the opportunity to say anything for themselves.

As a speech pathologist I have the benefit of training and experience to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to work out what’s going on. Sometimes we need to worry and sometimes we don’t. The big problem with well meaning friends and family offering their advice, personal experiences and telling people not to worry is that they may actually be deterring someone from seeking help when they really do need it.

10 speech and language development red flags

You should contact a speech pathologist as soon as possible if your child…

  1. Is not babbling (eg. baba/mama/dada) by 12 months
  2. Is not pointing and waving by 12 months
  3. Doesn’t have at least 10 spontaneous (not copied) words by 18 months
  4. Doesn’t understand simple commands or questions (e.g. don’t touch, where’s your nose?) by 18 months
  5. Doesn’t have at least 50 words by 2 years
  6. Is not putting two words together (e.g. “daddy gone”, “more banana”) by 2 years – “All gone” and “No more” are considered to be one word
  7. Is not using 3 -4 word sentences by 3 years
  8. Is not understood by a stranger at least 75% of the time at the age of 3
  9. Does not appear to understand or hear you
  10. Has any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any time

Speech Pathologists aren’t robots. We know your children are unique and special and we treat them as the wonderful individuals that they are. So if any of the above points relate to your child do not panic. You just need to have a chat with us so we can work out what the missing piece of the puzzle is for your child.

So for any anxious parents out there who are not sure what to do about their child’s communication skills – when in doubt contact a speech pathologist! A quick phone call may be all you need to put your mind at ease and/ or give you some direction.

Oh and every time someone tells you that Einstein didn’t talk until he was 3 (or 4 or 15 depending on who’s telling you!) just smile and nod and then walk away quickly.

An important note:

I have often had people tell me that I must be mistaken when I mention how many words 18 month olds and 2 year olds might say. They tell me that their family doctor/ paediatrician/ baby health nurse etc told them that 10 words for an 18 month old is normal. Additionally, if you live in NSW, you will also see in your child’s personal health record (the Blue Book) that the 18 month old checklist talks about 5-10 words and the 2 year old checklist references 20 words as being typical.

It is important to note that those are screening guidelines used by physicians to find the children who are outside the typical range. Because development is so varied, there is a big range! Fewer than 10 words at 18 months and fewer than 50 at 24 months would suggest a potential need for intervention. But, 10 and 50 are not the average number of words *most* children have at those ages. Rather they are the outer limits of what would be considered ‘typical’. Hope that helps!


1 – Özçalskan, S., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010). Sex differences in language first appear in gesture. Developmental Science13(5), 752-760.