Please say 'Mummy'

Would I ever hear my little girl's first words?

Published by: Jessica Gibb
Published on: 16 February 2012

It's such a poignant moment, the day your baby utters that first beautiful word.You're bound to jot it down in the book of memories, tell everyone about it.
So imagine being told you might never hear the sound of your daughter's voice. You'd never hear her babbling away to her favourite nursery rhyme... never hear her call out ‘Mummy' to you. Believe me, it's heartbreaking.
As the speech therapist told me my two-year-old daughter Olivia was likely to be a mute, the room started to spin. I felt like the world was crashing down on me.
I hadn't worried when Olivia's first birthday came and went without her making a sound.
When her brother Jack, 12, was her age, you couldn't have kept him quiet! ‘All babies are different,' I'd told my husband Ian, 33. ‘She'll talk in her own time.'
Then on a routine trip to our GP, he'd become concerned about her and had referred us to a consultant.
She hadn't been able to tell us what was wrong because Olivia was too young. Instead, we tried group therapy to see if that would encourage her to find her voice.
‘She's just a late starter,' Ian had said. But I'd begun having doubts.
At the therapy, she'd taken part in all the games, pulling faces and moving around like a cow or cat.
Yet, she just wouldn't copy the animal noises. ‘Mooo!' I'd smiled.
Olivia put her fingers up to make horns, but didn't make a sound. ‘Come on, darling,' I'd begged silently. Nothing.
Then we'd been sent for a hearing test. To our relief, that had come back fine. ‘Why won't she make a sound?' I'd begged the doctor.
‘We don't know. We'll continue speech therapy.'
Sometimes, I'd cry to Ian at night. ‘What's wrong with our little girl?'
‘I wish I knew,' he'd whisper. But at least she could cry - so we'd known when she was upset.
Then, when Olivia had moved on to solid food, she'd had trouble chewing, and would often be sick. We had to blend her food, like she was a baby, even though she'd turned two.
By that time, she had a little sister Matilda, and was so good with her. She'd shake Matilda's rattle to keep her happy while I was busy in the kitchen. But something still stopped her from talking. ‘Uh, uh, uh,' she'd struggle sometimes.
‘What do you want, Olivia?' I'd plead. She'd point to the fridge.
‘Are you hungry?' I'd ask.
‘Uh, uh, uh,' she'd say, shaking her head. It had been as if the words just wouldn't come out, and it was so frustrating for her. Eventually, a tearful Olivia had pointed to the water jug, and I'd got her a drink.
It had been stressful for us all, so that's why we now felt so relieved that the speech therapist was finally giving us a diagnosis. But as she'd explained, my world had come crashing down... ‘Olivia has verbal dyspraxia, which is causing a severe phonological disorder.'
‘What does that mean?' I asked.
‘Basically, it means her brain isn't sending the right signal to her mouth, and her muscles haven't formed correctly,' she said.
‘Will she ever speak?' I asked.
‘It's hard to say, she has a very severe form of it,' she said.
I felt winded. I might never hear my beautiful daughter call me Mummy. How would she get on in life without talking?
The specialist explained Olivia would need intense speech therapy to teach her how to make basic sounds but, in the meantime, we'd need to learn sign language so we could communicate.
Me and Ian went on a two-day course to learn sign language, then gradually taught it to Olivia. ‘I need the toilet,' I said, moving my index finger across the chest.
‘Uh, uh, uh, uh,' Olivia said, copying the sign. She picked it up after a few days, and I enrolled her in swimming lessons to give her something else to focus on.
At the first lesson, she padded out in her pink cossie, looking so nervous. But by the end, there was a huge grin on her face.
‘Did you have fun?' I asked.
‘Uh!' she grinned, giving me a big thumbs-up.
‘I think it's because the other kids aren't talking here,' Ian said. We'd tried taking her to ballet, but she hadn't liked it because all the other little girls were chatting
away, and she'd felt left out.
When Olivia turned three, she started nursery. We had a name badge made for her so, when people asked her what she was called, she could point to it. It didn't seem fair - Matilda had just celebrated her first birthday, and was already babbling away.
Then, one day, I dropped Olivia off at nursery when the nursery nurse called after me. ‘Kelly! I think she wants to sign something,' she called.
Olivia raised her hand and pointed at herself before making the ‘love' symbol and pointing at me. ‘Uh, uh, uh,' she said. Tears welled in my eyes. It was the first time she'd been able to tell me that.
‘I love you too, sweetheart,' I said, scooping her in my arms.
Another year passed. Matilda, now two, was chatting away even more, yet her older sister was still locked in a silent world. One day, I was on the floor playing dollies with the girls when Olivia pointed at me.‘Immy,' she said.
My heart stopped. With shaky hands, I pointed at myself.
‘Immy!' she nodded.
‘That's right - Mummy,' I cried.
Her voice was so sweet, I burst into tears. ‘Ian, quick,' I shouted. He came rushing in. ‘Listen.'
He stared at Olivia as she said ‘Immy' again. It might've been the same word over and over, but it was the most magical sound.
Just a few weeks later, as we sat at breakfast, Olivia pointed at Ian. ‘Adda!' she called.
‘You're amazing,' he said. It was the breakthrough we were waiting for. Slowly, she introduced more words to her vocabulary with help from her speech therapist.
Cow, dog, biscuit... At first, she stuttered because she had so much to say. But, soon enough, she was speaking as if she always had. The speech therapist couldn't tell us what had made her start talking. It seems speech therapy and the confidence she got from swimming had paid off.
She's now five, and sometimes I listen to her and Matilda playing dollies. ‘My one is a princess,' she'll say. It warms my heart.
She's a real water babe too, and swims for Burnley Aquatics Club. ‘My goggles slipped, but I swam 400 metres!' she grinned recently.
We never take for granted how hard Olivia's worked to do something that seems so natural. And every time she calls out ‘Mummy', I remember how that was her first word, and feel so very, very proud.
Kelly Loftus, 31, Burnley, Lancashire