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Should you be concerned if your child is stuttering?

It’s natural for a mother to panic if her preschooler starts stumbling over his or her words, repeating syllables and filling speech with hesitations. But as a child’s language skills develop, periods of “disfluency” are quite normal. These phases, during which children typically repeat syllables or words once or twice (“li-li-like this”) or rely on fillers like “uh,” “er” and “um,” are a sign that they are learning to use speech in a new way. More often than not, there’s no reason to worry.

Recognizing a problem

Other speech patterns, however, may point to a stuttering problem. They include:

  • Having special trouble getting words started. Tensions and struggle may be evident in the facial muscles, especially around the mouth.
  • Repeating sounds or syllables more than twice.
  • Experiencing a “block”—no airflow or voice for several seconds.

How to help

How can you help your child cope with a stuttering problem? Here are some tips from the Stuttering Foundation of America.

  1. Listen patiently to what your child says, not how it is said. Respond to the message rather than the stuttering.
  2. Allow your child to complete his or her thoughts without interrupting and avoid filling in or speaking your child’s thoughts or ideas.
  3. Keep natural eye contact while your child is talking.
  4. After your child speaks, reply slowly and unhurriedly, using some of the same words. For example, if he or she says, “I s-s-see the b-b-b-bunny,” reply in an easy, relaxed way, “Oh, yes. You see the bunny. He’s cute.”
  5. Try to model slow and relaxed speech when talking with your child and encourage family members to do the same. Don’t speak so slowly that it sounds abnormal, but keep it unhurried, with many pauses. Television’s Mr. Rogers is a good example of this style of speech.
  6. Spend at least five minutes each day devoted to talking with your child in an unhurried, easy, relaxed manner.
  7. Reassure your child when stuttering gets worse and frustration grows. Some children respond well to hearing, “I know it’s hard to talk at times . . . but lots of people get stuck on words . . . it’s okay.” Other children are most reassured by a touch or a hug when they seem frustrated.
  8. Encourage your child to talk to you about his or her stuttering. Show patience and acceptance as you discuss it. Overcoming stuttering is more a matter of losing fear of stuttering than a matter of trying harder.
  9. Establish a calm, consistent family routine. Turn off the TV and radio during dinnertime. Background noise forces your child into a competition that can contribute to breakdowns in speech.
  10. Encourage each person in the family to listen to the other. When one speaks, the other listens, then takes his or her turn.

If you suspect your child has a stuttering problem, seek the help of a speech clinician who works with children and specializes in stuttering. Some preschoolers require just a few weeks of therapy. Others may require up to 18 months or more. In any case, your support, calm reassurance and efforts to be a model of relaxed speech will be important therapy indeed.