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Toddler speech delay and lockdown: How to support your child

Are you worried lockdown is causing a speech delay in your toddler?

Families have experienced fluctuating restrictions on socialising with others over the last year.

Toddler playing on bed during lockdown

With parents under pressure to work from home and care for kids and a ban on mixing with other households, some parents of toddlers fear the restrictions on socialising have impacted on their child’s speech. 

As a parent who is attempting to home school one child while entertaining the younger one and work, I totally understand the pressures.

If you have a worry about your child’s development on top of that then this just compounds the concerns.

We’re going to talk about the impact lockdown may be having on early years, but also about the many things you can do in your own home to help support your toddler through this time.

Soon we will be back to meeting friends, soft play and sleepovers at the grandparents’ house. Until then there are lots of positive things you can do to fill in the gaps when stuck at home.

You may also like my post about simple things to do with a toddler at home (these ideas are great for parents who are not so crafty like me).

What the experts are saying about lockdown and toddler speech delay

The charity Action for Stammering Children says the number of calls to its helpline has increased by 57.6%, the Telegraph reports.

A report from Ofsted titled “Briefing on early years” reported from early years providers such as nurseries that many children had left their childcare provider since the first national lockdown and not returned. 

The report states in its main findings: “Almost all providers said that the pandemic had significantly impacted the learning and development of children.”

Results of the survey of early years providers found 29% felt children had fallen behind in communication and language. 

The report also found children who had continued to attend early years settings – which remain open under the third national lockdown – had continued to make good progress. 

A study by the University of Oxford and four other leading universities looked at social development in children under three. Researchers say the first 1001 days after a child is born are crucial for laying the foundations for later development.

But it’s not all bad news. The study found 90% of families reported they had spent more time doing enriching activities during lockdown last year. 

On the other side, screen time had increased, particularly in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Researcher Alex Hendry said: “Children depend on high-quality interactions to support all aspects of their development. It is heartening to see that most families have been managing to find time to talk, read and play with their babies during this critical time, even amongst everything else going on. But from what parents are telling us, it is clear that during lockdown some babies have been missing out.”

What are the signs of speech or language delay in a toddler?

There’s a difference between what we are talking about when we discuss speech and language. 

Speech is the verbal expression of language, whereas language is much broader and refers to the entire system of expressing and receiving information, according to Rady’s Children’s Hospital San Diego.

It’s worth remembering with any milestone that they aren’t absolutes and some children will hit a milestone a little later than others. This does not necessarily indicate there is any problem with your child.

Signs of a speech or language delay, according to Johns Hopkins Hospital, are: 

  • By 12 months is not using gestures such as pointing or waving bye-bye.
  • By 18 months prefers gestures over speaking to communicate. 
  • By 18 months has trouble imitating sounds
  • Your child has trouble understanding simple verbal requests. 
  • By two years your child can only imitate speech or actions and does not produce words spontaneously. 
  • By two years your child cannot follow simple directions. 

Great Ormond Street Hospital has a great summary of speech and language milestones your toddler should be hitting between one and two years.

Why lockdown could cause toddler speech delay 

Reasons for lockdown impacting on your toddler’s speech may include: 

  • Fewer opportunities to socialise with other adults and children. 
  • Less face-to-face interaction with other family members such as grandparents. 
  • Lack of access to baby and toddler groups. 
  • The child has stopped attending nursery or their normal early years provision. 

Tips for improving toddler’s speech 

There are many things you can do as a parent to help improve your toddler’s language and communication skills. 

The key thing is to have fun with your toddler as much as you can. Interact with them and try to get them outside into the fresh air at least once a day. 

Here are some tips for helping your toddler’s speech.

Let your toddler speak 

If your child struggles to get out a sentence, be patient and silent while you wait for them to finish what they are trying to say. 

Expand on what your toddler has said 

When you child says a word, expand on their sentence.

For example if they say “ball”, then say “yes that’s your ball, it’s bouncy”. 

Start a conversation 

Speak to your toddler about everything you are doing. You don’t have to place pressure on them to answer questions, simply chat about what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. 

Read books every day 

Try to read to your toddler at least once a day. Bedtime is an ideal time of day to have a story. 

Point to the pictures and talk about what is happening in the pictures as well as read the words. 

Ask your toddler about the pictures and get them to find familiar objects in them. 

Help your toddler learn new words

Expose your child to new words as often as you can. 

When cooking you can hold up the ingredients you are using and explain what they are to your toddler. 

During play you could describe your toddler’s toys, for example “your favourite car is red”. Also describe what they are doing as they do it, for example when on a slide you might say “you are coming down the slide”. 

Taking turns 

Great Ormond Street Hospital recommends playing a game of giving and receiving to help your child understand your requests and following instructions.

For example ask them “give me the car” and hold out your hand to wait for them to hand you the toy. 

Play games that will allow for taking turns, such as rolling a ball between the two of you while you are sitting on the floor. 

Play alphabet games 

Sing the alphabet song to your toddler (you can find it on YouTube if you’re unsure). 

Talk to them about what words begin with what letters by using their toys. Hold up their bear and say “bear, B is for bear”. 

Sort toys into colours 

Toddler playing during lockdown
Cute little toddler girl playing alone with colorful wooden rainbow pyramid and toys at home or nursery. Happy healthy child having fun in kindergarten or preschool daycare.

This is a fun game for toddlers and also helps to teach them about colours. 

Choose some toys or use something like ribbons and encourage your toddler to sort them into piles of the same colour. Speak to your child about what each colour is and repeat it as they are grouping the toys together. 

Sing nursery rhymes 

Nursery rhymes are a great way to help your child’s speech and toddlers love them!

You can get a book with the popular nursery rhymes in and read it regularly to your toddler. 

Try adding some actions as you sing the words as well to bring the nursery rhymes to life. If you’re unsure there are lots of YouTube videos where people do the actions along with singing the lyrics to the nursery rhymes. 

Have video chats with loved ones 

Not seeing grandparents or other relatives during lockdown can be a really confusing change for young children. 

Try organising regular video chats where your child can see their relative on screen and they can chat to them about what they’ve been doing. 

Get outdoors every day

Outdoor play is hugely beneficial for children, and their parents, both for physical and mental health. 

It also provides a wealth of opportunities for interaction with your toddler and exposing them to new words. Get the family outside for a family walk and chat to your toddler about what you see. 

Encourage them to do a mini scavenger hunt where they need to find a leaf, a stone and a twig. 

Find a place at a early years provider

If your child is not attending nursery then you may consider finding them a place at a local provider. 

Early years providers are open for business under the current rules. 

Children aged two and over may be eligible for funded hours if you are claiming certain benefits. All children aged three and over are eligible for funded hours at early years providers, so do remember to speak to prospective childcare providers about a free place. 

Early years centres such as nurseries provide kids with opportunities to socialise, play with different toys, do play activities they may not do at home and boost their confidence. 

What to do if you think your toddler has a speech or language problem

If you are still worried and think your toddler may have delayed speech or a language problem then the NHS says you should contact your GP or health visitor.

They can speak to you about your concerns and if necessary refer your child to a local speech and language therapy department. 

In the meantime, keep talking to your toddler, read plenty of books and try to stay positive. The current restrictions will not last forever. 

You may also like:

21 important things to teach your one year old

What to do if you're worried lockdown is causing a speech delay in your toddler

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