Published on 
May 10, 2022

Early Communication and Eating Skills in Children: How an SLP Can Help

Learn how to spot the early signs of communication and eating disorders and take action

Written by Cathy Lauderbaugh, M.A., CCC-SLP, Owner of Creative Strategies Therapy & founder of Dynamic Therapy Services.

As a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) of 10 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of children affected by communication and eating disorders. I am passionate about helping children by supporting their entire family. When you are worried about your child, it is a challenge for the whole family; when families are empowered, then children can thrive. In this article, I’m going to help you understand what exactly communication & eating disorders are, how to spot the signs early, and how to take action if you have concerns about your child.

Speech-Language Pathologists Specialize in Communication & Eating Skills

A Speech-Language Pathologist is someone who specializes in communication skills: often called a “speech-therapist.” Some SLPs also specialize in oral-motor skills and eating skills; this means that they help children learn how to chew and swallow safely, as well as how to increase variety in their diets (e.g. extremely picky eaters).

Communication means so much more than just talking verbally; it is how a child interacts with their caregivers, accesses meaningful information about the world, and helps others understand what they need in order to thrive. Here are some areas that are part of Communication:

  • Expressive Language: How we comment and request. Language can be expressed verbally through speech, or nonverbally through gestures, sign language, picture communication systems, or communication devices. 
  • Speech: The quality of our spoken verbal sounds and words. Speech includes Articulation/Intelligibility (how clear are the speech sounds, how easy it is to understand words/sentences); Voice (is speech breathy or hoarse?); Fluency (is stuttering present?).
  • Receptive Language: How we understand language, such as story comprehension or following directions. 
  • Social Language (Pragmatics) and Social-Emotional Skills: How we use our expressive language and/or speech to form social connections, such as interpreting meaning from others’ facial/body gestures, using eye contact to connect to individuals within a group, understanding reasons for emotions, taking turns, and developing play routines with peers. 
  • Cognitive Skills: Problem-solving, attention, and memory.

Why Might a Child Need Support with their Communication or Eating Skills?

There are many reasons why a child may need help with their communication or eating skills, including: 

  • Premature birth or other medical diagnoses that affect the child’s speech-language-learning system;
  • Speech-language delays (the child has the skills of a younger child and is progressing at a slower rate than expected);
  • Speech-language-related disorders (e.g. phonological processing disorder; language processing disorder; dyslexia, apraxia of speech).
  • Co-existing issues that affect a child’s ability to process communication-related learning (e.g. Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, Global Delays, Cerebral Palsy).

What are some signs my child might need support?

Consult with an SLP if you notice any of these observations in your child’s development:

Physical and Oral-motor

  • Seems as if your child cannot hear you consistently
  • Snoring or heavy breathing; frequent congestion and/or drooling that does not go away completely between teething episodes; or open-mouth posture
  • Excessive W-sitting

Eating/Oral-motor

  • Pacifier use, bottle use, frequent finger/thumb sucking past 12-15 months of age
  • 6 months: no hand to mouth play
  • 15 months: cannot use a straw cup; some utensils
  • 24 months: cannot use an open-cup; not chewing foods consistently
  • 15-24 months: Trying less than 50% of foods offered/ having a limited diet of less than 20 foods

Communication

  • 8 months: no babbling
  • 9 months: no gesture imitation
  • 12 months: no pointing
  • 15 months: not imitating verbally
  • 18 months: not following one-step instructions; fewer than 5 spoken words
  • 24 months: not using 2-word phrases; less than 60% intelligible
  • 36 months: not using 3+ word phrases, not following multiple-step directions; less than 80% intelligible

What to look for when choosing an SLP

Family Coaching Approach

If you think your child might need help with their communication or eating skills, it is important to find a provider who is a good fit for your family as a whole. Communication and eating skills in young children develop within daily routines with the child’s familiar caregivers; look for a provider that emphasizes Family Coaching in their approach. This means that the therapist is using an approach that actively teaches the caregivers how to do the therapy strategies outside of sessions—to generalize the strategies and learning to the family’s daily routines as much as possible. There is a significant body of evidence that shows therapy approaches that emphasize family coaching have better outcomes than those that do not (e.g. Dempsey & Dunst, 2004; Rush & Shelden, 2011; McWilliam, 2010; Rossetti, 2001).

Movement-based and play-based approaches

There is also a body of evidence that shows movement-based learning is essential for a child’s learning. This is especially true if your child also has challenges in other areas (e.g. sensory processing disorder, gross motor challenges, global delay). Therapy approaches that use movement and are play-based create an opportunity for the child’s brain to choose to learn and to integrate the learning into their whole system (e.g. Dywer, et al., 2001; British Journal of Sports Medicine, Oct 2019).

ASHA Licensure 

Make sure the SLP holds a current license with their state and is certified by ASHA (the American Speech-Language Hearing Association).

How to get support in Colorado

If you think you might need help from an SLP, or if you aren’t sure, consider the following options.

Early Intervention Colorado

If your child is under age 5 yrs-old, you can request a free evaluation from Child Find (Part C for children Birth - 3 years old; Part B for children 3 years - 5 years). If your child qualifies, your family can receive in-home services from a SLP or other professional qualified to support your child’s needs. 

Child Find or Private Practice

Some children are able to get services through Child Find, but unfortunately Child Find does not always have the resources to support all areas of need. If your child does not qualify for services, but you still have concerns, try finding a private practice SLP. Some of these providers will take your insurance; others will not. 

You can also consult tools like ASHA ProFind or SOS Find a Therapist (Eating Skills).

Want to Learn More?

Visit my blog to learn more about the following topics:

  • Oral-Motor Skills
  • Early Eating Skills
  • Social Language
  • Alternative Communication Methods
  • Using Hippotherapy as a Strategy (Equine Movement).

About the Author

Cathy Lauderbaugh is a local speech and feeding therapist in Boulder. She is passionate about working with families of young children (birth to 3 years; and preschool) and developing strategies that honor the whole child as part of the family. She works to help children learn through play and movement, and to find their own internal motivation to learn and curiosity about learning. Cathy’s work in the community includes forming a nonprofit to connect families with meaningful movement-based therapies: www.DynamicTherapyServices.org. Connect with Cathy at www.CreativeStrategiesTherapy.com.

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