Listen Closely: Correctible Childhood Speech Problems

In most instances, babies begin to make vowel sounds as early as 2-3 months. As a parent, your delight and response to them is an important way to create an affectionate bond and encourage speech development. Although you can usually expect proficiency with vowels by the time your child is finished teething, consonant sounds are more difficult, and commonly not mastered entirely until around age eight.

However, because early childhood speech problems can emerge rapidly, I encourage parents to always listen closely not just to what their children say, but how they say it. It’s important to stay open to the possible need for intervention. What may seem cute to you can lead to teasing, embarrassment, and shame at school. It can also become more difficult to treat once it becomes an ingrained behavior or when the jaw is affected.

Although speech problems can be caused by structural problems such as a cleft lip or palate, impaired hearing, neurological disturbances, or even from mimicking someone else’s poor speech patterns, dental teams are often the first health care professionals parents consult with because they rightly associate speech with the oral cavity.

In my practice I commonly see speech problems affected by dental issues. These include mispronouncing Ts and Ds, tongue thrusting (reverse swallowing), lisping, and the inability to produce the S, Z, SH, CH, and J sounds. A root cause for many of these is thumb-sucking – a normal and comforting behavior for babies and young children that has even been observed in the womb.

When prolonged, however, thumb-sucking, pacifiers, and even sippy cups may cause alignment problems that affect teeth, appearance, and a malformation of the roof of the mouth. The tongue is one of the strongest muscles in the body and helps to form a proper palatal structure, but if its job is replaced by a pacifier or bottle, a high narrow palate can form instead. (I’d also like to remind you that if children always have something in their mouth, they can acquire the habit of finger pointing instead of acquiring language to communicate.)

Malocclusion usually corrects itself if thumb-sucking stops early enough (we suggest as close to age one as possible), but the longer it continues, the more likely it is that treatment will be needed to correct any resulting dental problems. I often work with a team that includes a speech pathologist, orthodontist, and an oral surgeon to detect, treat, and correct dentally related speech problems.

Bringing your children in for regular dental checkups is your primary defense against ongoing speech impediments, and while I usually recommend age seven for an orthodontic evaluation, for oral health issues and dentally related speech problems, the earlier the evaluation the better. I encourage you to call if you have any questions.
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