When should your child see a speech pathologist?
Learning to eat, speak and use language make up a huge amount of baby and child development. They’re really important skills and take years of practise to master.
Even in the womb, a baby will begin moving its mouth and hands in ways that will later help them learn how to suck, swallow and pick up food, while with their developing ears, they are becoming familiar with the language they can hear coming through their mum’s tummy.
But feeding, speaking and using language are complicated processes. Some babies and children can have issues with feeding or speaking that crop up either straight from birth or as they grow older and start activities like school. If they’re not addressed, these issues can have lifelong effects.
Speech pathologists specialise in helping people who are having difficulties with feeding, speaking and language development. We spoke with Megan Free from the Speech Pathology team at Gold Coast University Hospital’s Child Development Service, about when a parent or caregiver might seek out the help of a speech pathologist. Check out these BCBA job opportunities.
Feeding issues in babies and children
Many people don’t know that speech pathologists can help with feeding troubles, as well as speech. Having trouble getting your newborn to feed well? Struggling with solids? Or, do you have a very picky eater on your hands? Megan says these are all areas with which a speech pathologist can help out.
“We start from birth with children who may have difficulties with their early feeding,” says Megan. “Later on, you can find difficulties with eating and drinking at any stage.”
So how do you know if your bub or child should see a speech pathologist for feeding issues? Megan says the signs to look out for vary at different ages and stages of development.
Difficulties with infant feeding
Whether they are breastfed, or bottle fed, when a baby is born, they have to learn a whole bunch of new skills to be able to eat. A baby’s first days and weeks see them learning how to latch, suck and swallow in order to get the milk they need to survive.
But, while you might think it should be the most natural thing, getting milk into a baby isn’t always easy. Megan says there are a variety of reasons that babies might have difficulties feeding.
“These issues can be related to prematurity or related to structural differences such as a cleft palate or a range of other factors,” she explains.
When it comes to helping babies who are having difficulty feeding, Megan’s team works alongside other healthcare professionals.
“We work hand-in-hand with our colleagues, nurses and lactation consultants,” says Megan. “Generally, speech pathologists support the feeding relationship through not only looking at a child’s individual feeding skills but also the way in which a parent feeds their child and how these interact.”
Speech pathologists can assess what’s happening physically for your baby if they’re having trouble feeding. They’ll look at how they use their lips, mouth and tongue when they’re eating, how these areas have physically developed and whether they’re having any issues with skills like sucking and swallowing.
At around 6 months of age, you can start introducing simple family foods (solids) to your baby. Once again, there’s a new set of skills for them to learn including touching and picking up food, bringing food to their mouth, eating using utensils, exploring flavours and textures, chewing and swallowing.
If you’ve noticed your child is having trouble eating different foods, a speech pathologist might be able to help.
“For little ones, you might have realised your child isn’t transitioning onto the foods you would expect. You might notice they’re coughing and gagging when eating,” says Megan. “Some children have difficulty with a safe swallow, so they might have food or liquid going down the wrong way.”
Megan says a speech pathologist can use a number of tools and techniques to help when babies are having trouble eating different foods.
“It might be changing the types of foods that are offered to make it easier for the child to chew,” she explains. “Or it might actually be building skills in the way the child chews, so teaching them the oral motor skills to handle the food that the parents are offering them.”