Should I be worried about my toddler’s speech?

Northwestern researchers are working to develop easy and accurate ways for parents and pediatricians to know when toddlers who are slower to learn language could benefit from an extra boost.


Every child is different, but that doesn’t stop parents from comparing the kids at the weekly playgroup or on the playground. Some 2-year-olds are talking in full sentences, some are just using a few words and others aren’t saying anything at all.


Should you be worried?


Maybe. Maybe not.


About 1 in 10 toddlers is a late talker, meaning that they don’t use as many words as other kids their age or combine words. About 60 percent of late talkers are simply “late bloomers” who catch up without extra help. The other 40 percent have persistent language problems that significantly increase their risk of language and learning disorders when they enter school.


The bad news is that right now, there isn’t a reliable way of predicting which child is a late bloomer vs. one that really needs extra help.


The good news is Northwestern University researchers are leading the way in trying to figure this out for both parents and professionals. Findings from this study could help children who need it get an extra boost of language intervention as early as possible when their brains are most responsive.


The “Science of When to Worry”


To tackle this question, neuroscientist Dr. Elizabeth Norton and developmental psychologist Dr. Laurie Wakschlag from Northwestern University launched the When to Worry research study, funded by the National Institutes of Health.


They believe that looking at a child’s behavior, language and brain development (using child-friendly EEGs) will be the key to creating a toolkit for distinguishing late bloomers from toddlers at risk for persistent language delay.


During the study, toddlers and their parent meet with the team at age 2, 3 and 4 in either downtown Chicago or Evanston. Activities during the visits include games, child developmental assessments and more. The team also uses a safe-for-all-ages EEG to measure how active the parent’s and child’s brains are when they play together. (Most children have a specialized type of EEG before they leave the hospital to test their hearing!) Parents in the study love to see what their child’s brain looks like “in action” while they are learning!


Every couple of months, parents also complete an online survey and take an audio recording at home, helping researchers and parents better understand the family’s natural language environment.


Parents receive compensation for their time for every visit and survey, travel reimbursement, as well as information on their child’s language and overall development.


Is my child a late talker?


If you wonder if you have a late talker, the Northwestern team is offering a free language screening for toddlers 21-35 months old to see if children are eligible to participate in the study.


Those eligible for the study can opt to be a part of it. Families who complete the whole study receive a total of about $650. Those who do not want to participate can receive recommendations and referrals for more help if needed. The study is approved by the Northwestern IRB (STU# 00202880).


For more information or to complete the screening, visit the When to Worry research study or contact researchers at (872) 225-2929.


About Northwestern University

Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine conducts the research study, When to Worry (W2W).

Visit for more information.


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