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Late-speaking toddlers do catch up behavior-wise, study finds

July 06, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Toddlers who aren't using many words at age 2 do catch up, behavior-wise, in childhood and teenage years, researchers said this week in the journal Pediatrics.
Toddlers who aren't using many words at age 2 do catch up, behavior-wise,… (Richard Hartog / Los Angeles…)

Parents often worry if their toddlers are slow to start speaking in sentences, but a new study has found that otherwise normal 2-year-olds late to learn words aren’t more likely than their peers to have behavioral or emotional problems in their childhood and teenage years.

Scientists had suspected that some behavioral disorders could stem, at least in part, from frustration at not being able to use words to communicate -- think of a temper tantrum by a child struggling to name shapes or colors.

So to find out, Australian researchers analyzed data on children tracked from pregnancy through age 17. When the children were 2 years old, their parents were asked to select which words on a 310-word list their child spontaneously used, and to assess their child’s behavior. Of the approximately 1,400 2-year-olds included in the analysis, 10% were classified as late talkers; these children generally had more behavioral problems -- including being anxious and withdrawn, as well as being aggressive.

But when researchers surveyed behavior when the children were 5, 8, 10, 14 and 17 years old, they found no difference between the late babblers and their peers. The results were published online Monday in Pediatrics.

The results seem to indicate that parents of late talkers can relax. But there’s a caveat: The results don’t apply to all children who are late to speak. To make sure the vocabulary delay wasn’t indicative of a general delay, the researchers excluded infants who hadn’t reached basic developmental milestones. The analysis also excluded children who spoke a language other than English at home, had hearing problems or had diagnosed developmental or intellectual disorders.

The authors wrote in their conclusion:

“Although these findings support a wait-and-see approach to behavioral and speech and language intervention among late talkers with otherwise normal development, it is important to highlight the considerable evidence linking persisting language impairment and psychiatric difficulties.”

In other words, parents shouldn’t worry too much if all appears well and their children aren’t talking. But they shouldn’t not worry either.

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