When Should I Be Concerned About My Child’s Stuttering?
A question we frequently get in our medical practice, mainly from parents of three and four year old’s, is: “When should I be concerned about my child’s stuttering?” Here’s what “stuttering” really is and how to help yourself – and your child – manage it.
Stages of Speech Development
Beginning talkers usually go through a stage of speech development more accurately called normal dysfluency rather than stuttering. As toddlers learn to talk they frequently hesitate or repeat opening words and syllables, such as: “I-I-I want…,” “when-when-when…mommy come home…,” “ca-ca-ca…can I have a cookie?”
Tiny talkers often use hesitation syllables, called fillers, as they change words and thoughts: “er,” “uh,” “um.” Children also get especially dysfluent when they are tense, tired, excited, anxious, in a hurry to speak, speaking about new or complex topics, or when they feel pressured to answer a question. Dysfluency is particularly common with tongue-challenging sounds like “L” – “li-li…like.” Parents, realize that your young language-learner is unaware that he is not talking “correctly.” Tiny talkers enjoy experimenting with various sounds and sequences and often “like” the sounds they hear.
A child must first be comfortable speaking before worrying about speaking correctly.
How Parents and Teachers Can Help with Stuttering
Speech is caught, not taught. Instead of correcting, simply repeat the sentence “correctly” yourself and let your child hear how it’s supposed to sound. Speak slowly, distinctly, and give her a chance to mimic your speech patterns. You can ease in gentle “corrections” with a well-timed “slow down” or “tell me again.”
Make talking fun. As we said above, it’s important that children learn how to speak comfortably before they speak correctly. The young language learner is unaware that he is not talking “correctly.” He simply enjoys experimenting with various sounds and sequences. Let him experiment with lots of sounds without feeling judged or pressured to speak correctly. Above all, don’t call attention to the fact that he “stutters” or “speaks incorrectly.”
Talk eye to eye. Teach your child to be comfortable with body language while talking. If her attention wanders while she talks, draw her into you by addressing her by name and saying, “Sally, I need your eyes; I need your ears.”
Be a careful listener. Children speak more clearly if their listener believes what they have to say is important.
Listen patiently. Children who feel rushed are more likely to become dysfluent. If your child stumbles during a sentence, ignore it. Keep your usual attentiveness and eye contact and patiently wait for him to finish. Above all, resist the temptation to finish your child’s speech or hurry him to the end of the sentence. Let him make “mistakes” as he tries out different sounds.
Keep a speech diary. If you notice gradual improvement over a period of six months and your child is becoming more fluent, this is most likely normal dysfluency, not stuttering, and does not need therapy. Identify what we term tense-talking triggers. Does your child stutter when she is tired, anxious, nervous, hurried, or when talking to strangers? A tense mind can lead to a tense tongue. If, however, she is stuttering at other times and there seems to be no improvement over six months, consider speech therapy.
Children become more fluent when they comfortably speak about their favorite subjects. Invite your child to talk about something she loves. Let her know that she is fun to listen to and you love to hear her stories. Again, no judgment about the “correctness” of her speech.
When to Seek Speech Therapy
If your child is becoming less comfortable talking, better to get help earlier than later. You want your child to enter school being comfortable talking and communicating. A child entering school as a stutterer can be a target of ridicule. Take your child to a speech therapist if:
- Your child is over three years of age and according to your speech diary, you haven’t seen any improvement in over six months.
- You sense that your child is becoming increasingly uncomfortable talking.
A certified speech therapist can tell you if your child is still going through a stage of normal dysfluency or if there really is a problem. A speech therapist can advise you on how you can help your child at home and give you a list of playful speaking games. Finally, a well-trained speech therapist can spot an anatomical problem, such as tongue-tie or tongue thrusting, that is interfering with your child’s normal speech. She can teach your child how to use her tongue properly.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.