How can I tell if my child has a stuttering problem?
The mind of a toddler is buzzing with questions, commands, and mangled lyrics to "Sesame Street" songs. Your child is probably still learning how to turn his thoughts into intelligible sounds, and mistakes are bound to happen. He may pepper his speech with "um" and "uh" or frequently repeat words or phrases ("Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mom. Can I, uh, have a story? A story?"). He might also repeat the first sound of a word once or twice, li-li-like this. These speech patterns are normal. Left on his own, your child will quickly outgrow them.
Other quirks of speech, however, might signal the start of a more serious stuttering problem. Notice whether your child:
- Frequently repeats the sound at the beginning of a word three or more times ("ki-ki-ki-ki-kitten")
- When stuck on a word, often replaces the normal vowel sound with "uh" ("buh-buh-buh-bicycle")
- Drags out certain sounds ("mmmmotorcycle")
- Speaks quickly
- Pauses a long time in odd places, even within words
- Tenses up and shows other signs of distress while struggling to speak
- Has extra trouble talking when he's nervous or uncomfortable
Why does my child stutter?
Nobody knows what causes stuttering. Many researchers think that small glitches in a child's brain might interfere with the timing and rhythm of his speech. Just as some kids have trouble catching fly balls, some simply don't have the verbal coordination to speak clearly. Stuttering can run in families, and it's four times more common in boys than in girls. The condition has nothing to do with intelligence, and it's not a sign of bad parenting or hidden psychological problems. Stressful events, such as moving to a new home or going to a new daycare, can worsen stuttering, but they don't cause the problem.
How can I help my child improve his speech?
Whether your child stutters or is simply still learning the tricks of language, he needs your understanding and support. Your encouragement will help him find his voice and stop a minor problem from getting worse. Here are some rules of thumb:
- When your child stumbles during a sentence, keep normal eye contact and calmly wait for him to finish.
- Talk to him in slow, relaxed tones. (Think Mister Rogers.)
- Avoid correcting or embarrassing your child. Instead, simply repeat the sentence fluently yourself, so that your child can hear how it's supposed to sound.
- Set aside time each day for pleasant, stress-free conversations.
- Listen to your child instead of criticizing him. Telling him to "start over" or "slow down" can feed the problem by making him nervous and self-conscious.
- Let him know that you understand and sympathize with his problem. When he finishes a taxing sentence, he'll be glad to hear that "talking can be tough sometimes" or that his hard work is making you proud. If you pretend the stuttering doesn't exist, your child might assume it's an unspeakable crime.
- Encourage your child to tell you stories you know he's comfortable telling.
Do I need to take my child to a speech therapist?
If you suspect your child is developing a stuttering problem, schedule an appointment with a speech therapist for an evaluation. Don't wait too long; children who get help when their stuttering is beginning have an excellent chance of achieving normal speech.
A therapist can tell you if your child's speech is a normal part of growing up or a real cause for concern. If the therapist spots a problem, she may simply counsel you on the best ways to talk with your child. For children of this age, having understanding parents can be the best therapy of all.
Some children will need one-on-one therapy sessions. When working with toddlers, speech therapists often use games and other techniques to slow the rate of speech. If your child can learn to take his time without becoming flustered, he'll almost certainly conquer his stuttering. The therapist may teach you to conduct these sessions at home. Not surprisingly, the lessons seem to soak in faster when parents deliver them.
Stuttering Foundation of America
Michael Lawrence, David M. Barclay III, Stuttering: a brief review. American Family Physician June 1, 1998.
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Stuttering. http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/stutter.html