Parents of children in the age group of 2.5 to 3 years generally come to us with concerns about speech delay. On further investigation, they profess to have waited so long in the hope that the child would eventually catch up, as advised by older relatives and family physicians. This approach is not advisable.
Developing speech and language is a crucial part of the growth of a child because it is the most important tool used to communicate, express, think, learn, solve problems and even maintain relationships. It starts with sounds and gestures which develop into words and sentences. Learning a language is also the first step in literacy.
“Speech delay is defined as when the child's conversational speech sample is either more incoherent than would be expected for age or is marked by speech sound error patterns not appropriate for age. Evidence implies that untreated speech and language delay can persist in 40%–60% of children and these children are at a higher risk of social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems in adulthood.”
Source- Speech and language delay in children: Prevalence and risk factors by Trisha Sunderajan and Sujata V. Kanhere, National Library of Medicine, 2019
So in late talkers, speech delay should not be overlooked because late talking may affect the child’s ability to communicate, socialize, and interact with other children at school or can even put them at a lifelong disability risk.
Many parents and health professionals adopt a wait-and-see approach, thinking that interactions with peers at school would help the child to pick up fast and they will eventually catch up. While some with speech delay may do so, in rare cases, this can become a part of a broader condition such as global developmental delay, which would need further diagnosis and intervention.
Synapses and synaptic pruning
A child is born with around 100 billion neurons in their brain which is more than what grown adults have. These neurons are ready to absorb new information through environmental stimulations and experiences- like when you talk to a child when you play or interact with them- and are constantly making connections with each other. These connections are called synapses.
The number of synapses in the brain of an infant grows more than tenfold. By age 2 or 3, an infant has about 15,000 synapses per neuron. This is why infants are great at absorbing new information and skills because their brains have a lot of plasticity or the ability to be molded. So the more information the brain gets the more active the synapses get and form more and more connections.
When a child is exposed to gadgets like television or is not being interacted with or talked to from a young age, these connections or synapses are not being stimulated enough. The brain starts dropping those synapses which have remained unused. This process is called synaptic pruning. When there is not enough stimulation, pruning takes place. So the number of connections that are formed in the brain is based on the amount of stimulation that a child gets early on.
Speech and language are skills that are developed right from infancy when the brain is most actively absorbing new information. This is why the wait-and-watch approach to speech delay is outdated. Because the more the delay, the more the brain loses out on making important connections required for its wholesome development.
The critical age for language development
When infants and toddlers are trying to pick up a skill or ability such as picking up a language, there’s a critical period in which learning is at its peak. That critical period when the brain is making lots of changes and connections in children is between the ages of zero to five.
These first few years of life constitute the time during which language develops readily and after which (from age 5 to puberty) acquiring language skills becomes difficult. This is because as already stated, as the child grows, the synapses start becoming lesser in number as most are being lost to the pruning process.
What can parents do?
Language development can be inculcated by talking to the child right from birth, and responding when your child communicates back. By the age of 12 to 18 months, a child should be able to say simple words. By 2 years of age, they should be able to form short sentences with two or more words.
Reading or singing aloud to the child is also a great way to inculcate the same as it improves language and listening skills, and builds stronger emotional connections between the parent and the child. It also helps them learn new sounds and increases vocabulary and comprehension.
Singing a rhyme, or pointing out words and letters from a picture book or flashcards, exposes them to newer sounds and words that they can associate with a tune or a picture. These may also help them academically later on.
If your child has not reached its speech milestone and if you are worried about language and speech development in your child, it is important to meet with a speech-language pathologist.
Speech and language delay in children: Prevalence and risk factors Trisha Sunderajan and Sujata V. Kanhere https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6559061/