KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 28 — Not every child is a gifted little chatterbox.

Some often struggle just to string a sentence together.

A child however should be able to say at least a few single words meaningfully by the age of two.

Otherwise, the condition would constitute a speech delay, said Associate Professor Dr Subhashini Jayanath.

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“Developing children usually use one to five words specifically and meaningfully from 12 months old.

“Often by 18 months, children have five to 20 words and by age two, they have a vocabulary of at least 50 to 100 words," Dr Subhashini, a consultant developmental and general paediatrician at University Malaya Specialist Centre (UMSC) said.

Meanwhile, Prince Court Medical Centre senior speech therapist Linda Blankanette pointed out that other red flags to watch out for include constant blocked nose, persistent cough and cold that could affect children's hearing.

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If left untreated, Linda said the affected toddlers will either use gestures to request or do things independently rather than asking using words.

Some children, she said, produce distorted and dysfluent sounds because they are unable to coordinate the jaw, lip and tongue muscles to form sounds, words or phrases.

“Children showing resistance to learning, such as those who keep using the same toys rather than learning to operate new toys, might also encounter speech delay.

“They might find the process of producing sound and words hard and give up easily,” she said.

Associate Professor Dr Subhashini Jayanath, consultant developmental and general paediatrician at University Malaya Specialist Centre (UMSC). — Picture courtesy of UMSC
Associate Professor Dr Subhashini Jayanath, consultant developmental and general paediatrician at University Malaya Specialist Centre (UMSC). — Picture courtesy of UMSC

'Spike in speech delay post-pandemic'

A recent study by health data company Komodo Health discovered that speech delay cases among children aged between 0 and 12 jumped by 115 per cent in 2022.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the study found only nine children diagnosed with speech delays for every 100 speech assessments performed between ages 0 to 12. However, in 2022, 21 new cases were reported for every 100 speech assessments.

For Dr Subhashini, this trend could herald two things.

“It either signals that more children are emerging with this presentation.

“Or, it could mean that since nuclear families were cloistered together (during lockdowns), parents had the opportunity to notice language delay in their children, which they might have otherwise missed," she said.

Dr Subhashini said limited social interactions for toddlers during the Covid-19 pandemic may have hampered their opportunities for learning and development.

Prince Court Medical Centre senior speech therapist Linda Blankanette. —Pix courtesy of Prince Court Medical Centre
Prince Court Medical Centre senior speech therapist Linda Blankanette. —Pix courtesy of Prince Court Medical Centre

'Set housekeeping rules and play along'

Both experts agreed that setting some ground rules at home can nurture children's speech and language skills.

For starters, they strongly recommended zero screen time for children under two years old.

“Screen time should not exceed one hour a day for children between two and five years old.

“For children aged five and above, screen time can vary but should still be regulated," Dr Subhashini said.

More importantly, she urged parents to practice what they preach by putting their digital gadgets away and actively listen to their children when spending time with them.

Meanwhile, Linda advised parents to provide speech and language stimulation for their children through mealtime routines.

“Give them simple directions like 'Time to eat!', 'Put this on the table' or 'Please pass me the milk bottle'.

“More advanced toddlers can be taught to express taste and their food preferences,” she said.

Nevertheless, learning through play is the best time-tested tip that Linda offers to parents.

“Play along, join their tea party, engage in a car race or pretend to have a match.

“Use words to comment on what is happening. Highlight verbs and adjectives.

“Parents have forgotten to have fun with their children. So, go play.”