Q: I am concerned because my 3-year-old son, who until recently had great language skills and talked really clearly, has started to stutter. How should I handle this?
A: It can be confusing and worrisome to parents when they hear their child begin to stutter, especially when he or she had previously been speaking very clearly and smoothly. But in fact, stuttering is not uncommon between the ages of 2 and 5 as children learn to put sounds and words together to form thoughts and phrases. Toddlers have so much to say that it is sometimes difficult to get it all out! According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/stutter.asp), developmental stuttering may occur when a toddler’s desire to speak exceeds her speech and language abilities. When this happens, toddlers may begin to stutter until their spoken language skills have caught up.
During this period, you may hear your child’s stutter come and go, or it may last for a few months or more. However, it is important to remember that the majority of children outgrow their stuttering. According to the National Stuttering Association (www.westutter.org), as many as 3 out of 4 children who show signs of developmental stuttering stop stuttering within a year of its onset.
Indications that stuttering may be more than a temporary stage include the following:
• Child repeats syllables four or more times (c-c-c-c-cat) as compared to once or twice for more typical toddler stuttering (c-c-cat)
• Child’s facial muscles appear to be tense or the child blinks or shifts gaze to the side while stuttering
• Child’s voice rises in pitch while stuttering
• Child’s stuttering occurs throughout the day, regardless of the situation. (Typical developmental stuttering is most likely to happen when the child is tired, scared, excited, or frustrated.)
• Child shows great effort and/or tension in trying to speak. The child may even begin to avoid having to speak.
If you are concerned about your child’s stuttering, talk to his health care provider or other trusted child development specialist for guidance about whether an assessment might be useful at this time. A speech-language pathologist can evaluate whether your child’s stuttering is typical for his age and stage of development or whether he may benefit from treatment.
In the meantime, the following are sensitive and helpful ways to respond:
• Don’t make a big deal about the stuttering. Take the pressure off your child by showing him that you are interested in what he is saying and giving him the time he needs to express himself.
• Be supportive. “I know you have so much to say and sometimes it’s hard to get it all out. I’ll wait for you to say what you want to say.”
• Slow down your speech (if you happen to be a “fast-talker”).
• Ask one question at a time and wait for your toddler to respond before moving on. Listen attentively and patiently to his responses.
Perhaps the best advice of all is to slow down your interactions with your child. Toddlers move at a different pace than adults as the whole world is so new to them and full of discoveries. Reducing time demands on toddlers can lift some of the pressure they may be feeling to “get their words out” quickly.