Toronto mom creates app to help track babies' speech and language

When a Toronto mother was told she could be waiting up to a year for her son to see a speech-language pathologist, she took matters into her own hands.

Speech-language pathologist says technology can help empower parents

Maryam Nabavi says when her son was around one year old, she was concerned that he wasn't saying his first words. Frustrated by delayed referrals and wait-lists, she created Babbly, a speech development app. (Submitted by Maryam Nabavi)

Maryam Nabavi says she had a feeling something wasn't quite right when her then one-year-old son wasn't saying 'mama' or 'dada.'

She says her pediatrician wasn't initially concerned. When she was finally referred to Toronto's free speech therapy program, she was told there could be up to a year-long wait.

"Within that time I noticed my son was really frustrated, throwing tantrums, banging his head on the floor, so I reached out to a private speech-language pathologist for help," she said.

Nabavi took matters into her own hands, knowing how crucial that time period would be for her son's learning and development. 

"Within a few sessions I learned strategies that helped my son communicate first through gestures and then eventually through words."

"These strategies were so simple that it made me think, 'why did we have to wait for almost a year to get the coaching we desperately needed?'"

Using the tools she learned from experts, Nabavi spearheaded the development of an app called Babbly, which uses artificial intelligence technology to help parents track their baby's speech and language milestones.

She says the app was launched in 2020 and has thousands of downloads. 

"It's really important to give children the tools to communicate as well as the parents the understanding that they're the ones who are in power."

"And with very few strategies [the parents] were actually able to change the trajectory of their child's development and help them to close the gap."

Nabavi's app caught the attention of Google, which is now supporting her team through an accelerator program for voice AI startups.

App can 'calm parents' worries while they wait': expert 

Talia Leszcz, a Toronto based speech-language pathologist says she was impressed by the potential she sees in the app.

"I work with parents and young children in the public system, so the idea of an app that would help empower parents and give them tools that we were giving them in person, was really exciting to me," she said.

Talia Leszcz says the app can help guide parents' decision-making around seeking help from a professional. (Submitted by Talia Leszcz)

Leszcz says she understands the anxiety parents might feel while waiting for answers.

"We know in early development those first three years in particular for children are so important in their overall development, their health, well being and the parent-child relationship," Leszcz said.

"It's really important that parents are aware of the skills and trajectory development of their young ones," Leszcz said, adding that technology like this can 'calm parents' worries' while they wait to see a professional.

"But at the end of the day, parents know their child better than any professional," she said.

For Nabavi— who's also trying to push for earlier referrals for children with speech delays— she says that was her biggest takeaway from navigating this experience with her son.

"If you're a parent and you have an instinct that something may not be right whether it's about speech and language, or other areas, trust your gut and intuition," she said.

"Try to advocate for your child as much as you can."


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