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A chat on speech disorders; When ‘ba-ba’ , ‘ma-ma’ is delayed

Does your child have trouble making certain sounds or finding the right word?

They could have a speech or language disorder. But do you also know that over-reliance on the mobile phone and television as a form of entertainment could be one of the contributing factors?

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Let us trace the development of the speech cues right from pregnancy.

Before the baby is born, the foetus can faintly listen to conversations as Mummy socializes. Within a few minutes after birth, you can notice a newborn’s effort to show attention to human faces and voices; especially the familiar voices they heard during pregnancy. This could be the voice of the other parent, mum’s friend or even colleague. A sibling who makes effort to chat the baby before birth could also be one of the recognisable voices. As the child grows, gestures become a common method of communication and the coos and squeals become the preferred method to share their feelings. Babbling later takes over before the child combines syllables to form words.



These are the most common sounds by the end of the first year of life and these grow into simple consonants, consonant clusters and later grow to become complete words, sentences and finally a conversation. By the time the child is three years old, a simple conversation should take place between the child and peers, or even adults.

However, in some cases, the child does not develop speech and this calls for concern. Speech disorders can affect the way a person creates sounds to form words.

Dr Mbira Gikonyo, an Ear, Nose and Throat specialists warns that most non-verbal children prefer to be typing away on mobile phones and channel-surfing from one cartoon to another, due to a ruinous culture where the child is ‘entertained’ or silenced  by giving them a mobile phone. In other cases, it could be another underlying cause that needs to be checked by an audiologist, a hearing specialist.

Dr Mbira Gikonyo is an Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist and a Head and Neck Surgeon

“We need to stimulate our children to play and engage in a conversation. Children pick cues of the sounds and words we speak. Ideally, children store the sounds and imitate them to form words and later comprehensible sentences that build into a conversation” Dr Mbira notes. However, some children have difficulty forming words and others cannot talk at all.

Language disorder is defined as impairment of expression and comprehension because of a disruption in the acquisition of vocabulary (words), word endings, and sentence structure. Some people with speech disorders are aware of what they would like to say but unable to articulate their thoughts. This may lead to self-esteem issues and the development of depression. Children in multi-lingual settings also face a unique challenge as they decipher which language to use during communication.

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Dr Mbira estimates that about 8 to 10 % of children have difficulties with their speech. Dr Mbira advises that parents should seek early medical intervention to forestall or minimize adverse consequences of speech difficulties.

The symptoms of speech disorders include;

  • Repeating sounds
  • Adding extra sounds and words
  • Elongating words
  • Blinking while talking
  • Frustration when trying to communicate
  • Taking frequent pauses
  • Distorting sounds

Causes of speech disorders

According to Dr Mbira, conditions such as Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury, and being deaf or hard of hearing increase the likelihood of a child having childhood speech and/or language disorders.

What are the other causes of speech disorders?

  • Hearing loss
  • Genetic mutation in a single gene
  • Brain injury
  • Neurological disorders
  • physical impairments such as cleft lip and palate
  • No known cause

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Here are a few tips to encourage your son or daughter to develop speech right from an early age;

  • Respond to the baby’s cues
  • Talk about objects in the environment
  • Ask questions and listen to their answer
  • Tell stories
  • Look and read books
  • Sing songs and recite rhymes together.

In the next episode Dr Mbira discusses the treatment and management of speech disorders.




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