Is my child stuttering or is it just because they are excited?

Andrea Cooper
Senior Speech Pathologist

From time to time I will have a parent call, asking if they should come and see a speech pathologist because their child has just started stuttering. They might say “The preschool teacher said I should give you a call straight away, but I spoke to my cousin and she said that her son stopped stuttering after a few months and suggested that I just wait and see instead”.

Gosh how confusing! Then to add to the complexity of knowing when to call; the ‘stutter’ might only occur at particular times throughout the day and not at all at other times. So is it a ‘stutter’ or is the child just ‘really excited’?

So let’s break it down.

First, what is a stutter?

Stuttering is a communication disorder that is characterised by interruptions in the flow of speech. Stuttering can also be called ‘stammering’ or ‘disfluency’.

There are different types of stuttering behaviours:

  • “repetitions” of sounds, syllables or words, example; “m-m-m-Mum can I have a cookie?”
  • stretching or “prolongations” of sounds, example; “wwwwwwhy can’t I have a cookie? Caaaan I have a cookie please?”
  • or complete “blocks” — no sound for a moment or longer, example; “can I have _____ a drink?”

In addition to these speech disfluencies it is not uncommon for children who stutter to also show other nonverbal behaviours as they try to say particular words or sounds. Some children may grimace, blink their eyes, make faces, shake their hands or clench their fists.

Stuttering is highly variable. It is not uncommon for stuttering to be worse at certain times of the day or seem to disappear. It can also occur in cycles – sometimes a child might have a severe stutter for a few weeks, it goes away and then a few weeks later it comes back.

How common is stuttering in children?

Stuttering often begins in the preschool years, typically in children before 6 years of age and most commonly in three-year olds.
About 4% to 8% of children stutter at some point during early childhood (Yairi & Ambrose, 2013).

What causes stuttering?

Stuttering can occur for children who have reached early speech and language milestones appropriately. As a result, it can be distressing for families when their child starts to have trouble with their fluency. Especially when the stutter develops without warning.

The reasons why some children stutter is not fully clear. We know that is common for stuttering to occur if there is a family history of stuttering. Stuttering is not a psychological problem, instead it is a physical problem. Children do not learn to stutter from others. Different parenting styles do not cause stuttering.

Currently studies suggest that when stuttering emerges in early childhood, it is a sign that the neurological pathways for speech are not being laid down quite right. This is why early intervention is preferred.

Can a stutter go away by itself?

It is common for many children who begin to stutter before starting school, will recover without treatment by the time they are in their teenage years. In fact it is reported that at least 80% of young children who stutter will recover spontaneously without treatment (Reilly et al., 2013).

However, it is not possible to predict which children will recover by themselves. Usually only 10% of all children will recover naturally (without therapy treatment) within the first year of their stuttering onset. This means it is likely that a stutter will occur for at least a year before it naturally disappears entirely.

However not all children will naturally recover. For these children treatment is essential, and the earlier treatment starts the more likely it is that the stutter will be remediated.

When should you seek advice?

As there is no way to predict if a child will naturally recover, and we know that early intervention is essential when treating a stutter we recommend that advice from a speech pathologist is sought immediately.

Opinions about when to see a speech pathologist have recently changed. Recommendations used to be that parents should wait at least three to six months before they start therapy; to make sure the child’s stutter is sustained and in case of the child recovering naturally. However, now we recommend that early intervention be started as soon as possible.

Early intervention is essential for a few reasons:

  • A social stigma exists around stuttering. Children can often be teased or bullied because of their stuttering.
  • If stuttering persists when the child starts school it can be difficult to treat
  • If stuttering is not treated early it can cause problems later in life
  • Children who stutter may avoid certain situations and their confidence and participation in daily activities may be impacted
  • Children who are treated early often have better results long term

It is important to know that you are not alone. Often parents of children who stutter feel like there is nobody who really understands what they are going through. This can lead to a feeling of isolation that further contributes to anxiety and fear about their child’s future. Parents will get different advice from those around them (family members, teachers, neighbours, etc.) including stories about people known to have severe stutters, ways to ‘fix’ the stutter and advice to ‘watch and wait’. It is important that advice from a speech pathologist is sought early. We have great evidence based therapy programs that produce good outcomes and will support you and your child to achieve stutter-free speech.

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