How do you know when your child's cute mispronunciations signal a speech problem he won't outgrow on his own?
The answer is that it can be tricky! Learning to speak is a gradual process that takes several years, and making pronunciation mistakes along the way is both normal and common. As a parent (and non-expert), it can be very difficult to know when your child's mispronunciations are the kind that won't go away without help. To help you figure out whether and when to take action, we’ve rounded up the basics on lisps, which are a common speech problem in children.
The Different Types of Lisps
A person with a lisp essentially has difficulty saying the letters s and z properly. As speech language pathologist Caroline Bowen, PhD explains on SpeechLanguageTherapy.com, there are four common ways that kids produce the s and z sounds incorrectly:
- Interdental (frontal) lisp: Protruding the tongue between the front teeth
- Dentalised production. Touching the front teeth with the tongue
- Lateral lisp: Air escaping over the sides of the tongue
- Palatal lisp: Tongue in contact with the palate
Knowing When a Child's Lisp Isn't Normal
Sometimes mispronouncing s and z even after other letters have been mastered is a normal part of a child’s speech development. Speech therapist Rita G., who works with preschoolers and is a Circle of Moms member, explains it this way: “Kids don't develop all the sounds at the same time.”
SpeechLanguageTherapy.com offers similar advice: “It is a perfectly normal developmental phase for some (not all) children to produce interdental or dentalised /s/ and /z/ sounds until they are about 4½ years of age. . . .On the other hand, neither lateral or palatal lisps are part of the normal developmental progression.”
Getting a Speech Evaluation
If a child has a lateral or palatal lisp, or if he is producing interdental or dentalised s's and z's after age 4½, it’s time to take action. As speech pathologist and Circle of Moms member JoLynn R. suggests, the first step is to have his speech evaluated by a speech and language pathologist: “If you are concerned, contact your local public school and ask for a speech evaluation.” If the pathologist determines additional help is needed, she will recommend a speech therapist.
What Else Parents Can Do
In addition to seeing a speech therapist, parents can help improve a child’s lisp by putting an end to thumb-sucking or pacifier use. (See How to Stop Thumb Sucking). Several Circle of Moms members who have dealt with lisping children also recommend ruling out any sinus or ear problems. As Circle of Moms member Jodi explains, her step-son’s speech problems were a result of an ear, nose and throat problem. “He had to have his tonsils and adenoids out as well as grommets in his ears. It was honestly like an overnight cure — once he recovered from his operation, we noticed the difference in his speech immediately.”