Down syndrome, one of the more common birth defects affecting one in 700 babies born in the United States, is a lifelong condition that, depending on the severity, can have both physical and intellectual ramifications. Children with Down syndrome can struggle with speech and communication, which can become stressful for parents who are trying to provide the best care for their child.
This blog will focus on how Down syndrome affects speech and language and what you can do as parents to help your child communicate confidently and with ease!
How Does Down Syndrome Affect Speech and Language
Structurally, children with Down syndrome can have a small oral cavity, a larger tongue, and a narrow palate that makes it more difficult to produce sounds, articulate, and communicate with others. This can lead to poor speech intelligibility, which defines how clearly someone speaks so others can comprehend. They may also experience hearing loss, which is another obstacle in communicating.
Children with Down syndrome typically have difficulties with all areas of speech, from planning to phonology. Although expressive speech and language (the ability to use words) may be lacking, children with Down syndrome have good receptive language (the ability to understand). For example, your child may comprehend language well at an early age but struggle with producing language and grasping vocabulary.
Syntax, which defines the arrangement of words or phrases to form sentences, may also be an issue. As a result, they may be unable to speak longer, more complex sentences. Poor oral-motor skills may also be present, which can affect intonation and pronunciation.
There are a few reasons why Down syndrome impacts speech and language production. All humans have a phonological loop, which temporarily holds verbal and auditory information. Children with Down syndrome have an impaired phonological loop that makes it difficult to link sound patterns with spoken words.
Children with Down syndrome develop at a slower pace. This, in turn, can lead to reaching delayed milestones such as learning to crawl, walk, or talk.
At What Age Do Down Syndrome Babies Talk?
Every child is different and there can be some variability when a child with Down syndrome may say their first words; however, this typically occurs around 26 to 30 months old.
By comparison, babies that do not have Down syndrome typically say their first words around their first birthday, although they may learn to talk earlier (around 10 months) or later (around 14 months). Thus, a child with Down syndrome may be about a year behind their peers.
During the first 10 months or so after birth, your child with Down syndrome will begin to recognize sounds from their surroundings, including people talking or noises from nature. Shortly before their first birthday, you may start hearing them begin to babble. Then, in the 11-to-15-month year old range, your child will begin to understand words, but they may not be ready yet to speak.
During the 16- to 20-month-old period, your child will start to understand even more words. They may also be interested in pictures and sounds and be able to make sounds, but their words still are not intelligible.
By 21 to 25 months, your child has a firm grasp of language comprehension and can interact with others; however, oral-motor skills may still be developing, leading to less intelligible language.
Your baby’s first words will typically come in the coming months after they turn 2 years old. Even when first sounds appear, issues with intelligibility and fluency may still be present. Midway through their second birthday (around 30 months old), they may be able to say about a dozen words, including “mommy” and “daddy.”
Encouraging Your Child with Down Syndrome
It may be difficult to watch your child with Down syndrome struggle to learn to communicate. The good news is, as a parent, there are many things you can do to support your child.
For starters, you can use sign language at an early age to bridge the communication gap. Keep it simple and introduce a few signs, such as “eat” by putting your hand to your mouth. For “mom,” take an open hand and touch your thumb to your chin. For “dad,” take an open hand and touch your thumb to your forehead. Place your hand on your chest and rub in a circular motion to sign “please” and start with your hands at your lips and move them forward in a downward motion to sign “thank you.” Wherever using a sign, be sure to verbalize the word so your child can become accustomed to hearing it.
Other than sign language, you can use visual aids to work on communication. Show them objects and say the name so they can associate the two together. For example, show them an elephant and say “elephant,” plus a few words to describe it. You can also place a mirror in front of them so they can look at themselves. Reading books to children with Down syndrome, especially ones with various shapes and colors, can also help their communication.
It is also helpful to mix in sounds in addition to visual learning. Using a “buzzing” sound when referring to a bee or a “mooing” sound to describe a cow can help set the foundation for forming words. Consider singing to your child, too. Nursery rhymes are a good way to bond with your child and also help them expand their vocabulary.
At any point during these interactions, be sure to encourage your child whenever they produce sounds. These utterings may not make sense, but they are the building blocks to spoken words. Over time, they will develop from sounds into sentences. As parents, it is beneficial to cheer them on and give them positive affirmations.
Down Syndrome Speech Therapy
There is not a one-size-fits-all treatment to improve how your child with Down syndrome communicates. Instead, goals and objectives are tailored to children based on an evaluation process.
For example, a language assessment, an articulation assessment, and an oral-motor assessment will help your speech language pathologist determine which techniques and modalities to use.
In general, play-based speech therapy is an effective way to treat speech and language delays. This can include visual aids such as books and toys.
A speech language pathologist will also help you with sign language and other ways of effectively communicating with your child. Speech therapy does not start and end with a speech language pathologist. It is important for parents to work with their children at home to continue building foundational skills.
Treating Down Syndrome at Open Lines
Our speech language pathologists have experience treating communication difficulties in children with Down syndrome.
Contact Open Lines today by phone at (212) 430-6800, by email at [email protected], or through our contact form if your child needs an evaluation for speech therapy services. Additionally, you can request an appointment to discuss your goals and review our service options.