If you're the parent of a very young child around toddler age, you may be watching—or listening to—the child's speech development like a hawk. These years can be a bit nervewracking because you want to catch any speech or language disorders before they get too entrenched. At the same time, though, you want the child to learn language organically, discovering what gets a good reaction and what gets puzzled looks. There are some sounds that are naturally more difficult than others, though, and they naturally take a longer time for most children to master. However, they too can serve as good signposts of your child's development.
Sounds that get confused like "r" and "w," or "s" sounds that are lisped instead of properly pronounced, can make the child's speech sound oddly mushy or hard to understand. But it's common for even preschool-age children to have some issues with these sounds, so if your toddler is saying "wabbit" instead of "rabbit," you really should not be worried yet. Once your child starts to get into preschool and kindergarten, though, these pronunciation issues can begin to resolve. If they persist at that age, though, then an evaluation by a speech pathologist is a good idea.
One thing you can try on your own is finding a model of the human mouth in cutaway form showing all the articulators—the teeth, tongue, palate, and other parts of the mouth that contribute to sound. You can try forming games to show your child how everything moves around to create certain sounds and see if the child can imitate them. For example, "s" is generally pronounced with the front part of the tongue (just behind the tip of the tongue) close to but not touching the alveolar ridge, the bony protrusion behind the front teeth. Have the child try to imitate that, moving the tongue backwards and forwards until he or she achieves the sound. Treat it as a game, though, and don't show impatience or anger if the child doesn't get it. This is simply practice, not a test.
Some sounds have multiple correct ways of being made. "Th" is one of these sounds; you can pronounce it either with the tip of the tongue placed between the top and bottom teeth, or with the tip of the tongue placed just behind the top teeth. Which one you use is a matter of preference, so if your child appears to be using a different placement than the one you use, that's not necessarily a bad thing as long as the sound is being produced correctly.
Stuttering is a speech and language condition that many people look out for early on, but some hesitation (or disfluency, which is another term you might hear) in toddlers isn't always cause for alarm. They're still trying to figure out how all this speech stuff works, and they may be unsure about the sounds they're trying to make. You may hear them draw out a sound and look kind of confused at the same time. But the hesitancy can quickly turn into stuttering; if your child reaches preschool age and is still doing this, then that's a sign he or she should see a speech pathologist or language therapist.
One of the best things you can do is remain calm and just observe how the child's language is doing over time. Obviously, take action if the child is past the age where the sounds should be a problem. But don't try to force the child to pronounce sounds like adults early on. If you're truly concerned, talking to an early childhood development specialist (like those at Northside Center) may help.