It can be heartbreaking to see your kid struggle, whether it’s getting a handle on their emotions, learning a new skill, or having a hard time with something like their speech. This includes stuttering, which has been stigmatized for decades (though, hopefully, that will change now that President-Elect Joe Biden been so open about dealing with his own stutter over the years). The first thing you should know is that toddler stuttering can be a normal part of a child’s language development.
Of course, it’s also a normal part of parenthood to want all the information you can possibly get about any challenges your child may face. With that in mind, here’s what parents should know about toddler stuttering, including potential treatments.
What is toddler stuttering?
Everyone trips over a word from time to time, but for some kids — including toddlers — it happens on a very regular basis when the normal flow of their speech patterns is disrupted. You may also hear this referred to as stammering or dysfluency.
Usually, this involves when a child repeats or prolongs sounds, syllables, or words. Though it’s important to note that stuttering is not the same as when kids may repeat entire words as they’re first learning how to speak. It can be especially tricky to distinguish between the two, though, since stuttering most commonly presents in children who are learning to form words (and, therefore, are likely to repeat things).
What causes stuttering?
Although the precise cause of stuttering isn’t known, scientists do know that children with a family history of stuttering are more likely to stutter themselves. Other risk factors can include having other speech or language differences.
What are the signs of stuttering?
As a parent, your natural inclination is to run through all of the possible scenarios of any given situation. Is your toddler’s stuttering temporary, or will it continue? If you are concerned that your three- or four-year-old toddler is stuttering, there are a few ways to tell if it’s just part of their natural language development or something that might stick around. While there’s no definitive checklist of the surefire ways to tell if stuttering may last beyond childhood, there are some clues that might help.
To start, here are some of the typical aspects of language development that may sound like stuttering, but are less likely to continue beyond toddlerhood:
- Using filler words/sounds (i.e. uh and um)
- Repeating phrases (i.e. “He took — he took it from me,” or “But — but I want to stay here.”)
- Speech differences lasting fewer than six months
And here are a few examples of toddler speech and language patterns that may indicate a higher likelihood of continued stuttering:
- Repeating sounds or syllables (i.e. “I want to pet my d-d-d-d-doggy.”)
- Holding out the first sound in a word (i.e. “Sssssssssometimes I like to drink milk.”)
- Appearing to physically struggle while trying to speak
- Showing frustration when speaking
- Exhibiting “secondary” stuttering behaviors, including throat clearing, hand tapping, and/or eye blinking
- Speech differences lasting longer than six months
Temporary stuttering — or “normal” dysfluency — typically starts between the ages of 18 and 24 months and phases in and out until the child reaches around five years old.
Is stuttering a sign of anxiety?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not. Nervousness and stress aren’t direct causes of stuttering, but having this speech problem could increase anxiety and low self-esteem. People may worry their stutter may cause others to look at them differently or as less than. Especially when speaking publically, a person’s fear of revealing their stutter could make them do it even more. Although stress isn’t the reason, it could make it worse.
How is stuttering treated?
There are two main approaches to stuttering treatment in toddlers. The first is indirect treatment, which involves a speech pathologist working with a child’s parent(s) to help them modify their own communication styles. The second is direct treatment, which involves a child working directly with a speech pathologist to learn specific strategies for reducing stuttering.
What can parents do to help a stuttering child at home?
Whichever approach you take, there are a few ways that parents can help their child with their stuttering treatment. These include:
- Reducing communication stress and pressure by identifying and avoiding a child’s stuttering triggers
- Openly discussing stuttering with a child
- Being patient
- Modeling effective speaking habits, like slowing down and enunciating
When should you seek help for toddler stuttering?
If it appears as though your child may have a more serious or longer-term stuttering issue, it’s a good idea to talk to their doctor about it and see what they recommend as the next step.
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