The answer is 'you probably shouldn't worry, but there is a chance that you should'.
That's not very helpful is it? How about thinking about this question instead:
'Should I be looking at getting professional advice about my child's talking?'
Let me explain why I like this question better: We all know that children develop in their own time and at different rates, and that worrying about if/when they will reach a certain milestone is often unnecessarily stressful. We also know that the majority of children who are behind in their language development will catch up (hence all the stories of children who didn't talk until they were 4 but are now at Oxford). However, there are a minority of children who really struggle learning to talk, and that struggle lasts into when they start school, it impacts on their learning and their ability to make friends. There are also some children who have overall differences in their development such as Autism and Learning Difficulties.
So how do you know which one your child will be? It's actually quite difficult to tell when your child is just a toddler, but a Speech and language therapist can help.
Which brings us to the next question. When should you ask for a referral to a Speech and Language Therapist? The answer to that is straightforward- just see the chart below. Remember though the chart is not telling you whether your child has a problem, it's telling you whether you need to get some professional advice.
When to seek professional advice from a Speech and Language Therapist:
When your child is 12 months old they will typically start saying their first word. If they aren't, don't worry yet but do ask for professional advice if:
They rarely make eye contact
They don't point
They don't look at what you are pointing at
They seem 'in their own world' and don't enjoy tickling games, peekaboo etc
When your child is 18 months they will typically have around 3 - 20 words. If they don't, don't worry but do ask for professional advice if:
Any of the features from 12 months apply
They aren't babbling or playing around with sounds
They don't seem to understand even simple instructions such as 'give me your shoe'
When your child is 2 years they will typically have around 50 words and be able to put 2 together. If they aren't then don't worry, but do ask for professional advice. They might catch up without difficulty or they might need a bit of extra help. Words count even if they aren't pronounced correctly, as long as someone can recognise them. In fact, if your child is putting 2 words together then don't worry about pronunciation at all at this stage.
When your child is 2 and a half they will typically be putting at least 3-4 words together. If they aren't then ask for professional advice about whether they need any help. Also ask for help if their speech is so unclear that no one can understand, or they only use a few consonant sounds.
When your child is 3 they should be putting at least 5-8 words together in a sentence and you should generally be able to understanding them. They should also be asking you questions. If not then chances are everything is fine, but ask for a professional to confirm that.
When your child is 4 they should be using extended sentences, with words like 'because' 'and' 'so' and even people who don't know them should be able to understand them. If that isn't happening, get a Speech Therapist to just check that everything is on track. Sometimes children can use really long sentences and their speech is clear but it's very hard to follow what they are saying because they can't organise their thoughts or structure their sentences. If you often can't follow what your child is saying then it's worth getting professional advice.
To reiterate: If your child isn't doing something on the list then it doesn't mean something is wrong. It means you need to see a Speech and Language Therapist to find out whether they need any help. Equally, just because your next door neighbours child didn't speak until he was 4 and is now fine, that doesn't mean that your own child doesn't need any help.
So if after reading all this you are still concerned, then you have a couple of options. If you are in the UK you can talk to your Health Visitor or GP and discuss making a referral to a Speech and Language Therapist. However you can also make a referral directly yourself just by phoning your local NHS speech and language therapy service up. In the mean time have a look at the activities on this blog for ideas about helping your child, or subscribe to our newsletter using the link at the top of the page for a weekly update with more ideas for supporting your child's talking.