Common speech and language problems in children

Wondering if your child's stuttering or lisping is normal? Many speech problems in children resolve with age, although other issues may require speech therapy. 

A toddler covering his mouth at a dining table
Photo credit: © Aleksandra Jankovic / Stocksy United

No two children follow the exact same timeline when it comes to learning to talk. A lot depends on your child's innate abilities, what other skills they're learning at the same time, their exposure to language, and how people respond when they try to talk.

Still, there are some general milestones you can watch for as your child learns to talk. By the time your child is 2, they'll probably string words together in short sentences, such as, "What's that?" or "Go bye-bye," and they'll add new words every month.

Advertisement | page continues below

Three- and 4-year-olds typically use longer sentences of four or five words to talk about their activities or what they did at daycare. They're usually pretty easy to understand, even by people outside the family.

By age 5, your child should be able to pronounce all of the sounds of speech (though some sounds might still be tricky) and know their letters and numbers. They should also be able to tell short stories and hold a brief conversation.

Children's language skills continue to expand, and by the end of second grade, they can usually hold real conversations where they inform and persuade others, take turns talking, stay on topic, and use eye contact.

As your child learns to talk, they may have trouble getting ideas across or have other language difficulties. It's completely normal for your child to experience some hurdles as they learn to talk. But these difficulties might, in turn, affect their ability to learn important new skills, such as reading and writing.

Here are some issues you may notice and ways you can help.


By 4 to 5 years old, most children should be able to pronounce all sounds used in speech. Until then, you may notice your child swap certain tricky sounds for others that are easier to say, such as substituting a w sound for an l or r, as in "The wion wawed," instead of "The lion roared."

Here's how to expect your child's pronunciation to evolve as they age:

Advertisement | page continues below
  • By 1 year old: Your child strings together syllables, such as "mamama" or "bababa"
  • By 3 years old: People who know your child can understand their speech, and your child can say the letters m, n, h, w, p, b, t, d, k, g, and f in words most of the time.
  • By 4 years old: Most people can understand your child's speech, and your child can say y and v in words. They may still make mistakes on sounds including s, sh, ch, j, ng, th, z, l, and r.

What you can do

Kids learn by listening, so it's important to expose your child to as much speech as possible starting at birth. Talk, read, and play with your child. Describe what you and your child are doing in detail, using longer sentences as your little one gets older.

No matter how cute you find your child's mispronunciations, be sure to say words correctly when you talk. Don't correct your child's speech – simply echo what they said, but correctly. Focus on what your child does say properly. Otherwise, they may get frustrated and hesitate to talk.

When to talk to a doctor

While most speech and language issues resolve on their own with time and practice, it's a good idea to check in with your doctor if your child is having trouble speaking clearly, your little one gets frustrated when talking, or people can't understand what your child is saying.

It might be due to an articulation disorder, meaning your child can't coordinate their lips, tongue, and palate to make certain sounds. Or it could be due to a phonological disorder, meaning they're physically able to make the correct sounds but consistently can't produce them in certain words. Kids can have both an articulation and a phonological disorder at the same time.

Advertisement | page continues below

Other signs of an articulation disorder include:

  • Adding sounds to words (like "puh-lay" instead of "play")
  • Changing sounds (always saying "w" for "r")
  • Leaving out sounds (not saying "sc" in words like "scrape")

You may also notice that your child becomes self-conscious about talking to other people and may avoid certain words altogether.

It's best not to wait for an evaluation if you or your pediatrician is concerned about your child's speech.

If your doctor suspects your child has a speech sound disorder, they may refer you to a speech-language pathologist. These specialists can pinpoint and correct the sounds that your child is having trouble with and offer activities you can practice together at home.

Advertisement | page continues below

If the disorder could be linked to a physical problem, there are a number of professionals your practitioner may refer you to, such as an audiologist, pediatric dentist, or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) physician.


A lisp is a mild and fairly common articulation error. It's caused by incorrect tongue placement and can impact sounds such as "s," "sh," "ch," and "j."

A frontal lisp is the most common and happens when a child makes a sound by pushing their tongue through their teeth rather than behind. A lateral lisp may be caused by air escaping from the sides of the tongue, causing a "slushy" sound.

What you can do

Always say the s sound correctly in your own speech to model how it sounds.

Also make sure your child can breathe comfortably out of their nose with their lips closed, and treat any allergy, cold, or sinus problems.

Advertisement | page continues below

An open-mouth breathing posture may mean something is causing the tongue to lie flat and protrude, which can cause speech problems.

When to talk to a doctor

Many kids lisp as they're learning to talk, and most will produce the s sound correctly by around 7 years old.

But if your kid is still lisping at 5 years old, it's a good idea to see a speech-language pathologist before the lisp becomes too habitual, especially if your child is hard to understand and has other speech sound errors.

Expressive language delay

An expressive language delay is when a child has difficulty communicating verbally, but their language development is otherwise progressing typically.

For some children, it's simply part of their development and they'll catch up soon enough. But for others – especially if they're learning language in an atypical pattern – it may be part of a larger problem or an expressive language disorder.

Advertisement | page continues below

Two- and 3-year-olds typically have a hard time with their new speech and language skills. Sometimes your child is so eager to communicate with you that they may stumble when you don't understand them.

By age 4, your child's thoughts should start to flow in complete sentences with less effort than it took just a year earlier. At that point, your child usually shouldn't have to stop and think for long about what to say or how to say it.

What you can do

Your child learns how to speak from you – so be sure to talk to your child frequently throughout the day. Tell them what you're doing, and describe the world around them. And it's never too early – or late – to start regularly reading to your child.

To help your child turn thoughts into sentences, let them know how those sentences are supposed to sound. Let's say your child desperately wants you to put on their socks. Your child may say: "Mama! You sock, my sock, please!"

It's helpful to respond to what they're trying to say: "You want me to help you with your sock." It's also helpful to expand on what your child says: "Look, your socks have blue and green stripes. I am putting them on your feet."

Advertisement | page continues below

When to talk to a doctor

Kids who have a lower-than-normal ability to use language to communicate may have expressive language delay – in fact, it's relatively common in school-aged kids.

While some children who have expressive delays are "late bloomers" who eventually catch up to their peers, others need help from a speech language pathologist to catch up.

Sometimes, children aren't diagnosed with an expressive language disorder or delay until they're in preschool or daycare. But it's a good idea to check in with your doctor if your 2-year-old only repeats words they hear instead of using them spontaneously, or if they struggle to communicate anything verbally beyond what they need in the moment.

You may want to see a doctor if your preschool-aged child:

  • Isn't expanding their vocabulary and can't seem to remember new words
  • Struggles to use words in the correct order in sentences
  • Leaves out words
  • Pauses frequently or say "um"
Advertisement | page continues below

Kids with expressive language disorders may have difficulty in school, which can, in turn, lead to frustration and behavioral problems.

If you're concerned about your child's ability to use language, it's always a good idea to bring it up with their pediatrician, who can refer your child to speech therapy if necessary.


A stutter is a type of disfluency, or a break or disruption in the flow of speech.

It's not unusual for children to go through a phase where they don't speak as fluently or stutter. After all, they experience rapid growth in their ability to express themselves in the first few years of life. Before age 5, they may hesitate or repeat whole words. For most children, the stutter will go away.

The problem occurs when your child's brain power is greater than their verbal dexterity. Sometimes kids are so excited to tell you what's on their mind – or they're tired, angry, or upset – that they can't get their words out easily. Or they simply might not have mastered the language learning process yet.

Advertisement | page continues below

Examples of typical disfluencies that you don't need to worry about include:

  • Repeating a word or phrase, like "Where-where are you going?"
  • Adding filler words in a sentence, like "I, um, want to, um, go outside."
  • Stopping partway through a sentence and starting again, like "I had – I went to the store."

But if your preschool-aged child shows the following signs of a true stutter, talk to your pediatrician:

  • Repeating a sound within a word, such as "W-w-where are you going?"
  • Prolonging a sound, like "Ssssssit in the chair."
  • Blocking, or moments when your child is trying to speak but nothing comes out

What you can do

How you respond to a child who stutters is important. Keep your voice relaxed and your speech slow. Don't tell them to slow down – just speak slowly yourself and they'll follow your lead. Maintain eye contact, smile, and be patient.

Advertisement | page continues below

If you turn away and act impatient or interrupt your child, they will feel pressured to "get it out," which may make it worse. If you look frustrated, your child will pick up on it and may become even more self-conscious.

Work to build your child's confidence by regularly spending time together, away from the distractions of the phone or TV. Praise your little one for accomplishments that are unrelated to speech and language.

When to talk to a doctor

Most kids outgrow stuttering before age 5. But some kids continue to stutter, and the reason why is unclear. Sometimes stuttering grows more severe over time, or it may vary quite a bit from day to day.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing AssociationOpens a new window recommends making an appointment with a certified speech-language pathologist if:

  • Your child starts stuttering after age 3 1/2
  • Your child's stutter lasts longer than 6 to 12 months
  • The stutter worsens to the point where your child is tensing their jaw or grimacing in an effort to get the words out
  • Your child avoids talking because of the stutter
  • You have a family history of stuttering
Advertisement | page continues below

A speech-language pathologist will do an evaluation to determine whether your child's stutter is likely to continue and can work with your child on therapy that will lessen the severity of stuttering.

Childhood apraxia of speech

Childhood apraxia of speech (CAS) is a rare neurological disorder that affects a child's ability to make the accurate movements required to pronounce sounds, syllables, and words.

This isn't due to muscle weakness or paralysis, but happens because the brain has trouble coordinating the body parts needed to produce speech. It's a rare condition, affecting an estimated 1 to 2 out of every 1,000 children.

If your child has CAS, they may do any of the following:

  • Mispronounce vowels in words, such as "sut" for "sat"
  • Have pauses or awkward transitions between syllables, sounds, or words
  • Pronounce a simple sound correctly, and mispronounce it at other times
  • Appear to be groping when coordinating their lips, tongue, or jaw to produce sounds
  • Replace or drop difficult sounds, and make vowel and consonant sound errors that make their speech to understand
  • Have more trouble with longer phrases than shorter ones
  • Have a pitch, vocal quality, rate of speaking, and loudness that may not sound right
  • Understand better than they're able to speak
Advertisement | page continues below

What you can do

If your child shows signs of CAS, it's important to seek professional help from a speech-language pathologist right away. Children who have CAS usually need intensive therapy at a young age to help them to be understood.

You can help your child by talking slowly, giving your child time to respond, and following the speech-language pathologist's recommendations at home.

When to talk to a doctor

Children younger than 3 are rarely diagnosed with CAS. But if you're at all concerned about your 2-year-old, it's a good idea to consult a speech-language pathologist.

Between 18 months and 2 years of age, children with CAS may only pronounce a few vowel sounds. They also say their first words later (children usually begin saying simple words around their first birthday) and use fewer words than average with time.

As children speak more words between the ages of 3 and 4, you may notice more pronounced symptoms of CAS. If you think your child may have symptoms of the condition at this age, it's critical to talk to their pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist.

Advertisement | page continues below

Other signs of speech or language problems

Some speech or language delays are sometimes due to hearing loss – especially in kids with a history of ear infections.

Kids with hearing loss may not respond to their name by around 1 year of age and rarely attempt to speak or imitate others by the time they're 2 years old.

Hearing loss may be present at birth, and be diagnosed during the newborn hearing screening, or you may notice the first signs later.

If you have any concern that your child has – or is at risk of having – hearing loss, call their doctor, ask for a hearing evaluation by an audiologist at their school, or make an appointment with an ASHA-certified audiologist.

Sometimes, minor speech issues may disappear as your child becomes more skilled at talking. But some problems need professional attention. If you or your child's teacher notice a problem, your child can get an evaluation and might be eligible for a speech and language early intervention program (usually coordinated through the public school system).

Advertisement | page continues below

It's important to seek help from your child's pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist if you notice any of the following in younger children:

  • Your 2-year-old doesn't understand what others say, doesn't say at least 50 words, or can't string together two words.
  • Your child doesn't ask or follow simple directions or answer simple questions ("What's this?" or "Where's your hat?") by the end of their second year.
  • Your 3-year-old struggles to talk and play with other children and seems disinterested in books.

In older children – particularly ages 5 and up – watch for the following signs of a speech or language disorder:

  • Your child doesn't speak clearly and can't be understood by others.
  • Your child drools or can't manage their saliva when speaking. (This might indicate a physical issue that needs medical attention.)
  • Your child's voice sounds noticeably different from the voices of their peers – hoarse, scratchy, or breathy – but it isn't because of illness and doesn't improve after a short period of time.
  • Your child seems to struggle to understand what other people say. They might ask questions only rarely (or not at all), and often let adults do most of the talking.
  • Your child frequently can't find the right word to express what they mean – for instance, they may substitute words with related meanings ("cake" for "cupcake"), substitute words with similar sounds ("knob" for "knock"), or substitute visually related words ("clock" for "watch").
  • Your child talks around words ("something we eat on" for table) or frequently says "thing" or "stuff" instead of using specific words.
  • Your child pauses frequently when speaking, constantly struggles to get words out, or simply gives up and says "never mind" a lot.

You know your child best – if you're worried that there may be a problem, don't hesitate to bring it up with a pediatrician. Early intervention is important when it comes to speech and language problems.

Advertisement | page continues below
Follow your baby's amazing development

BabyCenter's editorial team is committed to providing the most helpful and trustworthy pregnancy and parenting information in the world. When creating and updating content, we rely on credible sources: respected health organizations, professional groups of doctors and other experts, and published studies in peer-reviewed journals. We believe you should always know the source of the information you're seeing. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. One to Two Years. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Two to Three Years. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Three to Four Years. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Early Identification of Speech, Language, and Hearing Disorders. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Childhood Apraxia of Speech. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Speech Impediment. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Stanford Medicine Children's Health. Undated. Speech Sound Disorders in Children. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Cleveland Clinic. 2022. Stuttering. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Your Child's Communication: Kindergarten. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Your Child's Communication: First Grade. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Your Child's Communication: Second Grade. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Speech Sound Disorders. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Speech Sound Disorders-Articulation and Phonology. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Minnesota Department of Health. 2021. Introduction to the Cup. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2023. From Bottle to Cup: Helping Your Child Make a Healthy Transition. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Children's Hospital of Orange County. Undated. Receptive and Expressive Language Delays. a new window  [Accessed August 2023]

National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. 2022. Developmental expressive language disorder. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Undated. Late Language Emergence. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

National Health Service. Undated. When Children Learn Sounds. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Nemours Foundation. 2022. Stuttering. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Cleveland Clinic. 2022. Articulation Disorder. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Childhood Apraxia of Speech. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Mayo Clinic. 2021. Childhood Apraxia of Speech. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Alhazmi, W.A. 2022. Mouth Breathing and Speech Disorders: A Multidisciplinary Evaluation Based on The Etiology. J Pharm Bioallied Sci Jul; 14(Suppl 1): S911–S916. a new window [Accessed August 2023]

Colleen de Bellefonds
Colleen de Bellefonds is a freelance health and lifestyle journalist. She's raising her toddler daughter and newborn son with her French husband in Paris.