It happens all the time. Parents watch in awe as their three year-old develops language, marveling as her communication skills fold out in front of them. They find delight in the way her language seems to evolve overnight, rapidly and almost effortlessly. Then, out of nowhere, they begin to notice their young preschooler starting to struggle just a bit when speaking. They notice her repeating sounds and sometimes syllables, often at the beginning of sentences. Sometimes her words come out smoothly, but other times she seems to get tangled up and stuck. All of a sudden, they begin to worry: Is this stuttering? Will it go away? And what should they do?
Although it may seem scary, this is actually a very common scenario, especially among toddlers and preschoolers who are bursting with language development. Many, many toddlers and preschoolers have what are considered to be very normal bumps in their speech between the ages of 18 months and 7 years of age. Children will repeat phrases, words, and even the beginning syllable of a word. These normal bumps occur most frequently at the beginning of sentences, are most apt to show up when a child is tired or excited, and typically only happen about one out of every ten sentences. This type of bumpy speech happens so frequently that it isn't even considered real "stuttering."
Many children, though, will have more stutters in their speech. They may get stuck for longer, or more frequently. They might repeat a word or syllable a whole bunch of times before getting "unstuck." Still, though, this is not often cause for significant alarm at all. In fact, for the vast majority of young children, it will take care of itself: research indicates that nearly 80% of all young children who have difficulty with fluency (or who "stutter") will recover on their own within 12-24 months without the need for speech therapy.
If your child is starting to show signs of stuttering, a few questions can help you decide if you need to talk to your pediatrician about it. Ask yourself these questions: Does your family have a history of stuttering? Has your child been stuttering for more than 6-12 months, on a pretty consistent basis? Did the stuttering start after 3 and 1/2 years of age? Does she ever get completely stuck with no sound at all coming out of her mouth? Does she show physical signs of tension? For example, does she shut her eyes, or look away, or does her face look tight when she stutters? Is your child having difficulty with any other aspect of speech and language?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you may want to talk to your pediatrician about a speech and language evaluation. Please be assured that this does not mean that your child won't recover on her own. It does mean, however, that a complete evaluation from a speech-language therapist can help you to better determine if the stuttering is likely to persist.
And what if you answered "no" to each question? Good news-- it's more likely than not that the stuttering will pass on its own. Still, though, there are some things you can do to help.
First, and foremost, resist the temptation to tell your child to stop and slow down or to think about what she is going to say. Many of us feel tempted to dole out this advice because this is what works for us when we start to get tangled in our thoughts while speaking. Stuttering, however, stems from a different type of difficulty than does our grown-up ability to organize our thoughts. Telling a child to stop and slow down often serves to increase stuttering rather than decrease it.
Instead of interrupting your child or calling attention to the stutter, do the opposite: Give your child eye contact, give her plenty of time to finish her thought, and then simply respond to the content of what she said. I know it's hard to avoid the temptation to interrupt your child. No parent wants to watch their child struggle, and it's only human nature to want to help. But rest assured that by doing nothing--by letting your child finish in her own time--you are actually very much doing something.
Then, when you go to respond to what your child is saying, pause a moment before you respond. Allow the pace of the conversation to slow a bit. When you respond, talk slowly and calmly, but naturally at the same time (a tricky feat, for sure. It took me many times in grad school to get it right!). Although many children do not respond to being directly told to "stop" and "slow down," they do respond when this type of speaking is subtly demonstrated for them by an adult. No need to tell them what you are doing-- just slow down the pace of the conversation on your own and watch as your child follows your lead.
You can also try to reduce the number of questions you are asking your child, and just comment on what they are saying. Keep up the pausing and slower talking as long as you can, especially when your child is having a really "bumpy" day.
If you have a particularly busy household (um, who doesn't?) you might also try to set up some rules for taking turns talking, say, at dinner time. Try to create situations where each person gets to talk without the pressure of being interrupted; children who stutter are more apt to do so when they are under pressure, in a hurry, or excited. It's unrealistic, of course, to try to avoid these situations all together. The key is to simply try to reduce them and create pockets of time for less hurried conversation that are scattered throughout your child's day.
If you try all these things and find that the stuttering still persists for 6-12 months without getting better, or if your child starts to show signs of physical distress, go ahead and talk to your pediatrician about a speech and language evaluation. If nothing else, you'll feel better knowing that someone else has helped you decide what to do.
Stuttering can seem much scarier than it is. The key is knowing when to really worry, and what to do should your child struggle. Once you have that information, you're well on your way to helping your child through any bumps that come her way.