Many toddlers and preschool-aged children stutter as they are learning to talk. Although parents worry about it, most kids will outgrow the stuttering and have normal speech as they get older. For those children who don’t outgrow the problem, the good news is that help is available.

Stuttering or dysfluency is basically an interruption or break in the flow of speech. Kids who stutter may say that their words get stuck or describe their speech patterns as bumpy because that’s how it sounds to them. All individuals are dysfluent at times. What differentiates the person who stutters from someone with normal speech dysfluencies is the type and amount of the dysfluencies. As kids learn to talk, they may repeat certain sounds, stumble on or mispronounce words, hesitate between words, substitute sounds for each other, or be unable to produce certain sounds. These repetitions, hesitations or other errors are usually without obvious tension in the facial muscles. Often, children are not aware of this pattern. Children with normal dysfluency may have one to three easy repetitions of certain sounds, syllables, words, phrases or interjections, as well as unfilled pauses or sentence revisions. On the other hand, characteristics of stuttering include:

  • Three or more repetitions of part of a word (duh, duh, daddy) with an additional vowel added
  • Repetitions with an irregular rhythm
  • Prolongation or stretching of sounds (ss____ometimes)
  • Tense pauses, hesitations and/or no sounds between words
  • Speech that occurs in spurts
  • Related behaviors that accompany stuttering, including tense muscles in the lips, jaw and neck; tremor of the lips, jaw or tongue during attempts to speak; eye fluttering, blinking, or other abnormal facial or body movements; and foot tapping, leg or arm movements or head turns to try to escape from the stuttering
  • Variability in stuttering when the child is under stress, upset, afraid, tense, tired, excited or embarrassed
  • Abnormal dysfluencies that last for more than six months
  • Your child expressing worries or concerns about her speech
  • Switching or substituting words to avoid “getting stuck”
  • Gesturing with their hands instead of talking
  • Talking less to avoid “getting stuck”

Nobody really knows what causes some people to stutter. Genetics may play a role. Children are more likely to stutter if a parent also stutters. Possible conditions that may cause stuttering include incoordination of the speech muscles, family history of stuttering, the rate of language development or a head injury. Although it’s not a cause, stuttering is more likely to show up during times of stress, such as a death in the family, birth of a new sibling, starting a new school, moving, etc. It also is more common in boys. Some children stutter more when they are excited and try to talk really fast, when they are thinking of a word they want to say, or when they are anxious or afraid about talking to a certain person. Families may notice stuttering around the time that the child starts to have conversations, or when he is trying to explain more complicated ideas.

What is known about stuttering is that children who stutter are no more likely to have psychological or developmental problems than children who don’t stutter. In general, stuttering isn’t usually a concern as long as it doesn’t persist for more than two or three months or at least gradually improves over time.
If your child stutters take these steps to help him:

  • Don’t correct or interrupt him when he speaks and ask others to do the same.
  • Don’t finish his sentences for him.
  • Avoid suggestions like “slow down” or “relax.” These suggestions can make the problem worse.
  • Don’t make him practice saying certain words or sounds.
  • Speak slowly and clearly when addressing your son and allow him plenty of time to finish what he is trying to say. Maintain normal eye contact, especially during a stuttering episode.
  • Talk frequently to your child. Discuss her day, read books with her, but also enjoy some quiet time with her. Help your daughter associate talking with easy, pleasant verbal activities, such as singing, reciting nursery rhymes, retelling favorite stories, etc.
  • Try to minimize stress or situations that make her stuttering worse.
  • For older children, talk openly about stuttering. It shouldn’t be a taboo subject.
  • For younger children, provide descriptive words for their stuttering such as “bumpy” or “sticky” rather than referring to it as “stuttering.”
  • Model “easy speech” yourself
  • Try not to use words that your child cannot understand
  • Expect your child to talk like the child he is, not like an older child or adult. This might put stress on your child’s attempts to communicate
  • Share these tips with everyone who regularly talks with your child — his teacher, babysitter, family members, etc.
  • “Catch” or recognize your child being fluent.

As children mature and sharpen their communication skills, speech dysfluencies typically disappear, but not always. If you or your child are concerned about her speech, she begins to avoid talking, stuttering occurs more often or dysfluencies start to sound difficult and strained, you should seek the help of a certified speech and language pathologist. Research shows that early treatment of stuttering is considerably more effective than waiting until the child is in school.

Your child may meet with her therapist alone or with a group of other children. Some strategies a speech and language pathologist may use to help your child include reducing the rate of speech and using slow, smooth speech movements; easing into voicing of speech sounds; voicing continuously during utterances; articulating lightly; and starting air flow for speech before any other muscle movement. Your child also will be taught different things she can do when she has a stuttering block or she thinks one is about to occur.

You should not allow others to tease your child about stuttering. Teach your older child to be straightforward with others by encouraging him to say, “I have a speech problem and it may take me a little longer to say something.” This reduces the time pressure to speak and it makes it easier to use slower, more relaxed speech.

Your child’s speech pathologist can help your family handle other people’s responses to your child’s stuttering.

Make sure your son knows that what he says is more important than how he says it. Encourage him to engage in activities in which he excels. He should not view himself as a “stutterer,” but rather as a person with unique strengths and weaknesses like anyone else. 

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