It's normal for children to acquire language skills at different rates, but parents should alert their baby's doctor if development varies dramatically from expected milestones.

If the neighbor's baby is uttering full sentences and your adorable infant has yet to say "ma-ma," should you worry?

Most likely not, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Children pass through consistent stages as they learn to speak, but they progress at different rates, and the range of normal development is quite wide. Children whose language abilities bloom a little later will probably catch up with peers by the time they go to school.

Sometimes delayed speech signifies a more serious problem, though. Speech-language pathologists look for particular signals in determining whether a late-talking child is likely to catch up:

Children begin understanding language before they speak. Late-talking children whose understanding of language is age-appropriate are more likely to be late bloomers than to have true language delays.

Children who use many gestures for communication purposes are more likely to catch up with peers than those who don't.

If a child's language skills are progressing steadily, chances for catching up are good, even if that progress is slow.

A CBS News story said language development can be influenced by a child's natural temperament and talents. And, having older brothers and sisters affects speech acquisition, too.

"Many babies with siblings reach milestones sooner because they push themselves to keep up," the story said. "On the other hand, some babies allow their siblings to do everything for them."

Being born early can cause babies to reach language milestones later, so parents of preemies should count from the due date instead of birth date as they check up on milestone achievements. And with any child, consult with your doctor if you notice dramatic delays or delays in more than one area. Also, tell your doctor if your child doesn't understand you and respond by the age of two.

LD Online, a leading website on learning disabilities, lists some of the ordered milestones that form building blocks of language development and offers parents tips for helping children learn to talk. Here's a sample:

By age one a child should:

Say two or three words besides "mama" and "dada."

  • Understand simple instructions.

    Recognize his or her name.

    Parents can help by responding to their child's cooing and babbling, reading colorful books every day, telling nursery rhymes and singing songs.

    Between one and two a child should:

    Use 10 to 20 words, including names.

    Combine two words, such as "daddy bye-bye."

    Make the sounds of familiar animals.

    Parents can help by talking simply and slowly to their child about everything that's going on throughout the day and providing children's recordings.

    Between two and three a child should:

    Carry on conversation with self and dolls.

    Have a 450-word vocabulary.

    Combine nouns and verbs: "mommy go."

    Parents can help by encouraging children to answer simple questions, reading books daily and carrying on conversations with their children.

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