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"There a tat!" - what can affect speech sound development

What can affect children's ability to say speech sounds

Ear infections

Children who have frequent coughs and colds can often have ear infections where fluid builds up in the middle ear. This is known as glue ear and can affect children's ability to hear a range of sounds. As there's a link between hearing sounds and making them this can affect their ability to use a wide range of sounds. Find out more from our factsheet.


There are lots of advantages to using a dummy for young babies - they give them comfort and can help with sucking. However, as children get older using a dummy all day everyday can mean that muscles at the back of children's tongues become stronger from holding the dummy (if you put your finger in your mouth and then suck or suck a lollipop you can feel the muscles used). This can mean that they develop sounds at the back of the mouth like 'k' and 'g' before the front sounds ('t' and 'd'). Dummies, although soothing, can get in the way of talking. There is also evidence linking dummy use to increased ear infections.

The general advice is to reduce dummy use from 12 months onwards. Find out more about the pros and cons of dummies here.


Using a bottle for a long time can mean that children push their tongue forward (imagine sucking a fruit shoot or sports drink bottle) and this has been linked to a lisp in some cases. Lisping is where children push their tongue too far forwards and make a 'th' sound instead of a 's'. A lot of young children do this and they will often naturally change the way that they make this sound. Find out more here.

Tricky sounds

Some children find it hard to learn and use some sounds. They often substitute sounds that are easier for them to say instead. For example, saying 'tat' instead of 'cat' or 'bish' for 'fish'. This is a completely natural stage of development for younger children but as children get older and their language becomes more sophisticated so should their speech sounds. Find out more from our speech sound factsheet about the stages children go through when learning new speech sounds and also when you might need to talk to a speech and language therapist.

Underlying difficulties

Children who are diagnosed with a cleft palate often need ongoing speech and language therapy to help them with their speech sounds. Some children who have verbal dyspraxia or a speech sound disorder will also need ongoing help.

If you have a child who needs this support they may have a programme that you can help them with on a daily basis. Short sessions daily can help more than a long session once a month or so.

Reflecting on practice

Show them the way - we often naturally model the right way to say words e.g. when child says 'there a tat' we would say ' yes, there's a cat'. Showing them the way rather than asking them to repeat and correct themselves puts less pressure on them. Lots of children think that they are saying 'cat' in the right way so won't be able to change the way that they say it straight away.

Singing nursery rhymes can help children's ability to listen to rhymes and sounds. This can help them with their speech sounds and later literacy development. For more ideas download our factsheet.

Dummies - they can provoke strong feelings about their pros and cons. What is your policy about older children using dummies while they're with you? How do you work with parents if they are trying to cut down on dummy use?

Do you know where to signpost parents to if they are concerned about their child's speech sounds or have concerns about ear infections? You can find out more from the Talking Point website andI CAN websites.

Learning to make different speech sounds takes time and practise for children. There are different things that can affect this and trying to minimise these early on can often help children later. As many of the key skills for reading link to good speaking and listening abilities, which develop from birth but are often taken for granted, are you confident to identify those children that have delayed speech and know how best to support them?

Find out more from I CAN's factsheets. If you have any questions you can call or email us at I CAN Help and a speech and language therapist will answer your enquiry.

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant.

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