Stuttering in Children: What’s Normal and What’s Not
Research reveals that up to five percent of all children go through a period of stuttering that lasts six months or more, and roughly one percent go on to have a long-term problem with stuttering.
It’s normal for a young child to stutter when he or she is first learning to talk, but some children don’t outgrow the problem and continue to stutter throughout their childhood and into adulthood. In fact, research reveals that up to five percent of all children go through a period of stuttering that lasts six months or more, and roughly one percent go on to have a long-term problem with stuttering. How can a parent tell if their child’s stuttering is just a normal, temporary phase in their speech development, or something more serious? And what should they do to help? For answers, we reached out to Michelle Curtin, DO, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.
Telling the difference
“True” stuttering, says Dr. Curtin, is a speech disorder where individuals prolong sounds and/or repeat sounds, syllables, or even whole words or combinations of words. “There can even be breaks in a thought with an interjection, such as ‘like,’ ‘um,’ or ‘you know,’” she says.
Developmental stuttering, on the other hand, is normal during parts of early language acquisition as sounds are learned and vocabulary expands. This kind of stuttering is common in children under the age of five and often improves with practice and time, she says.
Dr. Curtin says the best way to tell the difference between developmental stuttering and “serious” stuttering that needs professional attention is to answer some questions:
- How old is my child? Preschool-age children are just learning language, says Dr. Curtin. “So, they are very prone to making mistakes such as stuttering with new word.”
- Is my child difficult to understand? “A child who is very easy to understand when they are stuttering, or who stutters infrequently—meaning once a day or less—may require less support to help progress,” says Dr. Curtin.
- Is there anything else going on with my child? “A child that is self-conscious about their stutter or is withdrawing from activities deserves an evaluation and support even if it’s ‘not that bad’ in terms of fluency.”
- How long has this been going on? “Stuttering that’s been present for six or more months is more likely to be persistent, so it’s good to seek help if it isn’t improving over time.”
What You Can Do
“When parents are worried about stuttering, I recommend that they first seek consultation with a licensed speech-language pathologist (SLP) who has pediatric experience,” says Dr. Curtin. These professionals are best qualified to evaluate your child and determine the best course of action. To find an SLP near you, visit The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s website: www.asha.org/profind. “A speech-language pathologist can also help make the decision about whether or not a developmental pediatrician may also be helpful,” adds Dr. Curtin.
Keep in mind, too, that while anxiety doesn’t cause stuttering, Dr. Curtin says that some children develop “situational anxiety” when they stutter. “Namely that they are worried about stuttering and being made fun of, or may feel helpless when stuttering interrupts their thoughts and words,” she says. If this is the case, then parents should seek treatment from a qualified mental health professional for the anxiety.
--By Patricia Scanlon