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Stuttering in children: How parents can help

October 21st, 2021

When a child starts to stutter, it can be alarming for parents. But most of the time, it’s nothing to worry about.

Stuttering is very common. In fact, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 5% to 10% of all children stutter at some point, usually between 2 and 6 years of age.

Stuttering takes different forms

Children who stutter know what they want to say; they simply run into trouble when saying it. There are three different kinds of stuttering:

  • Repetitions, when children repeat a word or parts of a word (“Can I pet your d-d-d-d-dog?”)
  • Prolongations, when they stretch a sound for a long period of time (“Sssssssssstop it!”)
  • Blocks, when they have a hard time getting words out.

Stuttering is more common in boys than girls and can run in families. We do not understand exactly what causes it. Most likely, it occurs due to a combination of factors, which may differ in each child who stutters.

Developmental stuttering, the most common form of this speech disorder, happens as children are learning speech and language skills. Stuttering can be caused by a brain injury, but that’s far less common. Contrary to what many people believe, it is rare for stuttering to be caused by psychological factors.

Helping your child manage stuttering

Nonetheless, stuttering can cause distress and stress for children and parents alike. That’s why the best way to manage stuttering is not to focus on it, but rather to be patient and supportive. For example, the NIDCD suggests that parents of children who stutter should

  • create relaxed environments for conversation: set aside time each day to catch up with your child
  • speak in a slow and relaxed way yourself
  • resist the temptation to finish your child’s words or sentences yourself; let them finish
  • focus on the content of the message rather than how it is delivered.

To the extent that you can, ignore the stuttering — but if your child brings it up or seems bothered by it, be open and accepting. Acknowledge that it is happening, but tell your child that it is fine and they shouldn’t worry. Also see additional tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics on ways parents can help toddlers and preschoolers with stuttering.

When to get more help with stuttering

Most stuttering goes away by itself within about six months; overall, 75% of children who stutter stop completely. You should talk to your pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist if

  • the stuttering has continued for more than 6 to 12 months
  • the stuttering started after ages 3 to 4 years, as this may make it more likely to continue
  • the stuttering has increased in severity or frequency
  • there is a family history of stuttering that continued past early childhood
  • your child is upset or frustrated by the stuttering.

Article by: Claire McCarthy, MD, at health.harvard.edu