Speech pathology in focus

This week is Speech Pathology Week, so we spoke to Cyrena Bluck-Madden, Speech Pathologist at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, to find out more about how they help #sickkids.

Question: What is the role of a speech pathologist?

Cyrena Bluck-Madden: Speech pathologists study, diagnose and treat communication difficulties and disorders, including difficulties with speaking, listening, understanding language, reading, writing, social skills, stuttering and using voice. We also assess and manage infants and children with feeding and swallowing difficulties. 

For children, difficulties with communication are not unusual—up to 1 in 7 children will have difficulty with communication at some point in their lives. Here at the Hospital, the Speech Pathology Department we work with both inpatients and outpatients, which includes children attending specialised clinics and services, such as the Cleft Palate Clinic, the TOF clinic, the Brain Injury Clinic and the Cerebral Palsy Clinic.

We provide services for children living within the northern sector of South Eastern Sydney Local Health District. 

Question: What are the key communication milestones for children?

Cyrena: Communication development is a crucial part of a child’s overall development and the first few years of a child’s life are a period of rapid growth and development in this area.

Children tend to say their first word around their first birthday. A word is considered a word when the child uses it functionally, for example, saying “mum” when reaching out to their mum or saying “more” to request more food. Between a child’s 1st and 2nd birthday, their vocabulary should be growing pretty steadily, with the average vocabulary size of a 2-year-old somewhere between 50 – 300 words.

Usually around a child’s 2nd birthday when they begin to combine two words together to form some early sentences. For example, a child might say “bye daddy” or “more apple”.

By 3 years of age, a child’s vocabulary should be close to 1000 words, and they should be combining words to form a range of short sentences.

Question: How do parents know if their child needs to see a speech pathologist?

Cyrena: In general, parents and carers are the experts of their children, so if a parent or carer is concerned about their child’s communication skills, this is usually a good indicator that they may need to see a speech pathologist.

It is a good idea to make a referral to a speech pathologist if your child is:

  • taking longer than expected to meet their language milestones
  • hard to understand
  • stuttering
  • having difficulties playing and interacting with other children
  • having difficulties with readings and/ or writing
  • having feeding or swallowing difficulties

Our Speech Pathology department accepts direct referrals from parents and carers, so if there are concerns about a child’s communication or feeding skills, get in touch with us.

Question: How can speech pathology help my child?

Cyrena: Once a child is referred to us, they are generally booked for an assessment. During this session, the speech pathologist uses a range of tools to work out a child’s strengths and needs, in relation to communication. To do this, we talk, observe, play with and formally assess the child.

A Speech Pathologist works with the family to develop goals for their child that are functional, meaningful and personalised. Some children require individual or group-based therapy, while others require daily routine of exercises. Speech pathologists can work with children in a clinic or hospital, as well as in the community; at schools, preschools and playgroups.

Question: How can I help my child to build strong communication skills?

Cyrena: There are lots of simple things that you can do every day to help build your child’s communication skills.

Talk to your child 

  • Children learn language best through hearing those around talking to them.
  • Talk to your child about what they see and do – following their interests is a great way to engage them. This is important for all children, including young babies.
  • Use actions and gestures to help your child to understand what you mean.

Play with your child

  • Playing together is important for developing communication skills, as well as social and cognitive skills.
  • Spend time sitting down with your child and playing with a toy or game together. Talk about what they are doing, seeing and playing with.
  • Play doesn’t always have to be with toys – children love ‘people games’ such as nursery rhymes, peek-a-boo and tickles.
  • Try to reduce the time your child is spending on screens (iPad, TV, etc.) and increase the time they spend playing.

Read to your child 

  • Reading together is important for developing language skills, early literacy skills and is a great way to spend time with your child.
  • Choose books that your child is interested in. Point to the pictures and name things that your child can see. Encourage your child to turn the page and talk about things they can see.
  • You can increase the complexity of books as your child’s communication skills increase.

Speak to your child in your home language

  • Your home language is the language that you speak and understand best.
  • Speaking to your child in your home language will provide them with a strong model of language, including a rich vocabulary and skills in grammar.
  • Having strong skills in their home language will help your child to learn English well. It will not delay their talking.

Read about a child’s communication milestones

See our Speech Pathology services