Stuttering and the Young Child

What is the difference between typical disfluencies and stuttering?

How do I know it is not "true" stuttering?

What causes stuttering?

My child's playmate stutters. Will my child learn to stutter too?

My grandfather stuttered. Is it inherited?

Could an upsetting event in our lives have caused this?

Is this my fault as a parent?

What can I do at home to help my child?

Maybe my child will just grow out of it.

Links to other information

by Melanie Potock, M.A., CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist
Pediatric Rehabilitation Department
Boulder Community Hospital's Mapleton Center
Boulder, Colorado

Many young children between the ages of 1 1/2 and 5 have periodic speech disfluencies. Disfluencies are disruptions in the smooth flow of single words, phrases, or conversational speech. As children learn to negotiate the complexities of the English language, they may appear to have trouble speaking smoothly.

They may repeat syllables or whole words once or twice, such as "ba-ba-ball." They may hesitate or fill in the pauses with markers, such as "uh," "um," or "well." Sometimes, these disfluencies come and go for weeks or months at a time. These disfluencies can be part of normal language development, or they may be early signs that a child has a predisposition for stuttering.

What is the difference between typical disfluencies and stuttering?

Disfluencies are interruptions in the smooth flow of single words, phrases, or conversational speech. True stuttering impacts not only the flow of words, but also has specific behaviors associated with the disruption in flow. Not all of the behaviors are present for every child. Some of the behaviors to watch for are:

Consistent disturbance in speech production

Awareness of his/her own difficulty speaking as evidenced by the following reactions to the disruptions in flow

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How do I know it is not "true" stuttering?

If your child exhibits one or more of the behaviors noted above, he/she might be developing a true stuttering problem. If parents have any concerns about their child's speech fluency, the first person to consult is their child's doctor. The doctor may refer the child to be evaluated by a certified speech language pathologist who specializes in fluency disorders.

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What causes stuttering?

Researchers vary on their opinion of what causes stuttering. However, most researchers agree that the following factors are associated with increases in normal disfluencies:

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My child's playmate stutters. Will my child learn to stutter too?

Although this is a common myth, stuttering is not contagious. However, a child can be a positive influence on his/her friend's speech if the child is aware of some of the ways that he/she can help. (Please refer to "What can I do at home to help my child.")

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My grandfather stuttered. Is it inherited?

Researchers do not know if stuttering is an inherited trait. It is true that stuttering seems to run in some families, but a specific gene for stuttering has not been identified. Family studies show that many stutterers have a predisposition for stuttering, but it is unclear what physical markers exist that may prove inheritance. In twin studies, stuttering occurs more often in identical twin pairs than in fraternal twin pairs. Again, it appears from the twin studies that stuttering is inherited, but the inherited physical marker is unclear.

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Could an upsetting event in our lives have caused this?

Emotional stress may aggravate stuttering, but it is not considered to be a cause. Children who may be vulnerable to stuttering will often become more disfluent during stressful times.

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Is this my fault as a parent?

Current research indicates that parents do not cause stuttering. However, you can play an important role in facilitating normal fluency in your child's speech.

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What can I do at home to help my child?

Parents should keep the following advice in mind when talking with their child:

Encourage family members, baby-sitters, and teachers to speak in a relaxed rate, to listen carefully to your child, to give appropriate eye contact, to respond positively to your child's comments, and to allow your child to finish his/her thoughts.

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Maybe my child will just grow out of it.

Many children who show signs of mild disfluencies do "grow out of it." However, because typical disfluencies may mimic early signs of stuttering, it is highly recommended that parents consult with a doctor. It is worth the peace of mind to know that 1.) your child's disfluencies are typical for his/her age and development, or 2.) your child's stuttering can be helped significantly through early intervention with a certified speech language pathologist.

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Links to other information

For additional information on childhood stuttering, please contact the Stuttering Foundation of America, P.O. Box 11749, Memphis TN 38111-0749.

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About The Author: Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP

Melanie Potock is a certified speech language pathologist and national feeding specialist.  She is the co-author of the award winning Raising a Healthy Happy Eater and the pediatrician-approved Baby Self-Feeding, which focuses on safe feeding practices when offering babies solids. Her advice has been shared in Parents Magazine, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Fit Pregnancy, Huffington Post, PBS Parents.com and more.  Her on-demand video course at www.ParentingintheKitchen.com has helped parents all over the world who struggle with picky eaters learn how to raise babies, toddler and older kids who love healthy food. She can be reached at www.mymunchbug.com.

Copyright 2012 Melanie Potock, M.A., CCC-SLP, All Rights Reserved