From the first utterances of “mama” and “dada” to poignant questions like, “Why is the sky blue?,” a child’s speech development is one of her most important and exciting milestones.
For as many as 5% of toddlers, however, this development may be hindered by the use of repeated words, phrases or drawn out syllables that are often signs of stuttering.
“Stuttering is most often associated with difficulties in the timing between the breathing or respiratory regulation for speech, and voicing, that is the use of your larynx or voice box in order to produce sound,” said Amy Nebel-Gould, a speech-language pathologist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Some children also have problems with word retrieval — where they can’t think of the word — or have trouble formulating their thoughts, both of which can disrupt a normal flow of speech.
Stuttering, which is a form of dysfluency or an interruption in the flow of speech, may run in families and be aggravated by situations that create stress for a child, even when it’s a good situation.
“We often see before Christmas, when children are excited in a good way, that they may manifest an escalation or a worsening of their problem on a temporary basis,” Nebel-Gould said.
She also noted that children who stutter may experience related symptoms such as eye blinking, head jerking or other muscle movements that may feel needed to help them get their words out.
The first signs of stuttering tend to appear when a child is about 18 – 24 months old. At this age, there’s a burst in vocabulary growth and kids are starting to put words together to form sentences. It’s natural for kids to do some stuttering between the ages of 2 and 5.
In many cases, stuttering goes away on its own by age 5. But, if your child’s stuttering happens often and lasts more than 6 months, gets worse or happens along with other body or facial movements, seeing a speech pathologist around age 2 or 3 is a good idea. Effective treatments are available to help ease and even eliminate these speech disruptions.
“If your child tells you she is struggling to get her speech out or if she is already developing sensitivity to the problem, contact a speech pathologist,” said Nebel-Gould. “The earlier we can begin treatment, the better. Progress for kids that start later may be slower because they’ve learned patterns that need to be changed.”
A speech pathologist will evaluate your child’s stuttering and use standardized testing to ensure it’s not outside the normal range of language development.
Treatment options are wide ranging and are personalized based on your child’s age and developmental level. Speech-language therapy involves demonstration and modeling of proper vocabulary and fluency, and the use of repetitive exercises to train a child on how to smooth out her speech.
For example, a therapist might use a car on a track that goes faster and slower to mimic the changing tempo and pattern of speech to help smooth out a child’s speech. There also are many digital applications and games with delayed auditory feedback to help enhance fluency.
A therapist may also train a child on speaking in a relaxed manner, while regulating her breathing.
Nebel-Gould does role-play with kids and then puts them in real-world speaking situations, like taking them to the gift shop or ordering ice cream in the cafeteria, to practice with support.
“The goal of treatment is to empower children to take control over their speech patterns,” she said. “We want them to take back control so they don’t avoid situations or certain people at school or in social situations.”
Parent involvement is key to helping a child overcome stuttering. At home, be sure you don’t interrupt her, finish her thoughts or sentences, correct or criticize her. In addition, speak slowly and clearly to your child, while maintaining eye contact. Modeling a slow rate of speech can help with your child’s fluency.
“There is no cure for stuttering,” said Nebel-Gould. “However, we can alter a child’s speech pattern and offer kids strategies on how to be fluent. Once kids master these strategies, they can get around the speech disruption and feel more confident.”