Baby’s first words are adorable, but when older children face speech and language problems, it can impede their academic progress if left unchecked.

Angie Neal, a speech-language pathologist at Bell’s Crossing Elementary School, said a general rule of thumb is that babies say their first words around their first birthdays.

“They should develop a good vocabulary of 20 – 25 words at 18 months,” Neal said.

By age 2 – 3, that vocabulary will have exploded to include 300 or more words.

“Then it’s prepositions and action words and endings – ‘running,’ not just ‘run,’” Neal said.

Children will have most of their speech sounds and will use full sentences by age 3 – 4, and they should be 90 percent intelligible by age 6.

Neal said parents can take some steps to help their children’s speech develop well, even before they are budding conversationists.

Pacifiers have their place, but not for too long, according to Neal.

“My kids used a pacifier, too,” she said. “There is definitely a need for that to help children learn to self soothe.”

Neal recommends ditching the pacifier by the first birthday or at least reserving it for nighttime use.

Doing so may have other medical and dental benefits as well.

“There is a study that links pacifier use to ear infections,” Neal said. “When they can’t hear well, it impacts speech development.”

Sippy cups can be just as problematic, causing children to learn to swallow incorrectly. Neal recommends swapping them for straw cups.

“Sippy cups actually prevent the natural tongue movement,” she said.

The recommendation for reduced screen time for preschoolers is not new, but Neal said parents might not realize that the consistent use of tablets and smart phones may affect their child’s speech.

“There is a huge correlation now between how much less social kids are with screen time,” Neal said. “They are interacting with a screen, not another person. ”

Neal said conversation is priceless.

“Use conversation during drives in the car and at dinnertime,” she said.

Reading books before bed can not only become a precious ritual, it can expose children to new words and increase vocabulary.

“The single greatest thing you can do for speech and language development is to read with your child,” she said. “There is a difference between the language of someone who is read to and someone who is not read to.”

If parents think their child may have a speech problem or delay, Neal said they should consult their child’s pediatrician. Services are available for preschoolers and school-aged children through their assigned school or through special programs such as the Center for Developmental Services in Greenville.

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Angie Neal, a speech-language pathologist at Bell’s Crossing Elementary School, is the author of “The Pirate Who Couldn’t say Arrr!” available on The rhyming book tells the story of “Red Legs” Lamar as he learns to say a challenging sound.

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