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My 18 month old almost never directly imitates sounds or words. He has still picked up a few animal sounds and "uh-oh" and about 20 signs (ASL) and is very communicative, just not with intelligible words. When to worry about lack of imitation?

Language development varies greatly among children. I can tell you that I see the difference in my own two children. Nora, who is three years old, seemed to babble straight out of the womb. That girl would not stop making sounds. My son, who is 10 months old, didn’t really start making babbling noises until he was about 7 months old. Even though the skills vary greatly, there is a typical pattern in learning that we like to see. 

Imitation is one of the first signs that children are learning the speech sounds required to put words together. As a speech-pathologist, one of the questions I ask parents includes, “Does your child imitate animal sounds, gestures or any sounds that you make?”

The typical time periods and stages of speech are as follows:

  • From 1 to 3 months of age, babies cry and coo.
  • At 4 to 6 months of age, babies sigh, grunt, gurgle, squeal, laugh and make different crying sounds.
  • Between 6 and 9 months, babies babble in syllables and start imitating tones and speech sounds.
  • By 12 months, a baby’s first words usually appear, and by 18 months to 2 years children use around 50 words and will start putting two words together into short sentences.
  • From 2-3 years, sentences extend to 4 and 5 words. Children can recognise and identify almost all common objects and pictures, as well as use pronouns (I, me, he, she) and some plurals. Strangers can understand most words.
  • From 3-5 years, conversations become longer, and more abstract and complex.
  • By the time a child turns 5, they usually have a 2,500 word vocabulary and talk in complete, grammatically correct sentences. They ask a lot of ‘why?’, ‘what?’ and ‘who?’ questions.

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By 18 months, we do expect to see some imitation of words. They repeat words or sounds they hear you say, like the last word in a sentence. But they often leave off endings or beginnings of words. For example, they may say “daw” for “dog” or “noo-noo’s” for “noodles.”

Based on the information given in the question above, I would recommend speaking to a speech-pathologist. Although the child is gesturing, says animal sounds and knows ASL signs, we want to make sure he/she is using words that have communicative intent. This means, if the child is hurt, he/she can communicate that. If they are hungry, can they tell you? This will decrease frustration further down the line. 

Please keep in mind that if there are other underlying diagnoses, they may delay certain milestones!

For example, children who have Down’s Syndrome or Autism, will not reach typical speech and language milestones when they are “supposed” to. The best bet is to reach out to an SLP and mention your concerns to your child’s pediatrician!

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