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‘Wabbit’ or ‘rabbit:’ When should a child pronounce words correctly?

Health
Child and mom having fun.

Many young children are unable to form clear and distinct sounds in their speech. They may leave off the ends of words or use the wrong sound in the wrong place. That’s expected for little ones and part of the fascinating process children undergo as they learn to communicate.
Still, many parents wonder if their child’s speech is progressing normally. Every child’s development is different, but there are certain things parents can watch out for to help ensure their little one’s ability to speak clearly is on track, says Luann Mezzatesta, a senior speech language pathologist at Tidelands Health Pediatric Rehabilitation Services at Georgetown.
As children age, so, too should their ability to speak correctly, she says. By age 8, a child should have an expansive vocabulary and be able to pronounce all sounds within the language properly.
“At first, a very young child will have a limited vocabulary and his or her speech may be unintelligible to all but the little one’s parents,” Mezzatesta says. “Over time, though, both vocabulary and clarity should improve.”

What to look for

By age 3, parents and others should be able to understand the vast majority – at least 75 percent – of the words spoken by a child, Mezzatesta says.
If your child’s vocabulary is growing but he or she is struggling to pronounce words correctly, that could be a sign of a speech-sound disorder. Articulation disorders are the most common speech disorders and can be associated with many factors.
Common articulation disorders include frontal and lateral lisps, in which the placement of the tongue can cause a child to produce “s” and “z” sounds incorrectly. Someone with a frontal lisp, for example, would pronounce an “s” sound like a “th” sound. With a lateral lisp, the “s” sounds wet or sloshy.

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Other articulation errors include substitutions, which is when a child uses the wrong sound, such as using a “w” sound in the word “rabbit” instead of an “r” sound. Omissions occur when a child leaves out a sound, such as saying “at” instead of “hat.”
Some speech-sound disorders are related to underlying developmental or genetic diagnoses such as autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy, while others are associated with conditions such as hearing loss or structural issues such as a cleft lip or palate or tongue tie.
Still, a child can have an articulation disorder with no underlying physical abnormality or developmental disorder, Mezzatesta says.
Most often, a child will grow out of making an error without needing correction. But when children are old enough to understand the mistake they’re making, it might behoove parents to gently correct them so they begin to use the correct sound.
“If the child is old enough to understand how a word is supposed to sound, but is not pronouncing the word correctly, that could be cause for concern,” Mezzatesta says.

Help is available

If a child is struggling with articulation problems, a speech language pathologist, also called a speech therapist, may be able to help. Often, they will work with a child to practice making the sounds they struggle with.
Our goal at Tidelands Health is to offer a comfortable, understanding environment for the child to work on correcting whatever speech challenge they’re facing,” Mezzatesta says. “At the end of the day, we want to partner with the family in correcting the speech issue.”
Every child is different, she says, so the health system’s speech therapists develop individualized plans for each patient.
“We work with them to pronounce the sound correctly so they can go home and practice it themselves,” she says. “The change isn’t generally immediate, but it’s very rewarding to watch as a child’s speech improves.”
If you believe your child is struggling with speech, consult with your child’s physician, Mezzatesta said. The physician can refer the child to a speech language pathologist.

Speech milestones

Here’s a look at speech milestones from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association:

By 3 months: Makes cooing sounds
By 5 months: Laughs and makes playful noises
By 6 months: Babbles with sounds like “puh,” “mi,” and “da”
By 1 year: Babbles longer strings of sounds, like “mimi,” “bababa,” and “upup”
By 3 years: Says m, h, w. p, b, t, d, k, g. and f in words
By 4 years: Says “y” and “v” in words. May still have trouble with s, sh, ch, j, th, z, l, and r sounds
By 7 years: Says ch, sh, z, j
By 8 years: Should be speaking fluently and pronouncing all sounds

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