There is nothing quite like hearing your child utter her first words. And there is nothing quite like the way your heart drops when you hear those words begin to tumble over one another in a mishmash of repetitions, fumbling, and hesitancy.
Although less than 1 percent of the adult population has a problem with stuttering at any given time, the numbers are much higher for children. Research shows that about one in five youngsters suffer some sort of disfluency between the ages of 2 and 5 years old. In plain English, that means that they have trouble producing smooth, fluent speech. The good news? About 75 percent of these cases resolve themselves within two years, without speech therapy.
If your child has started to stutter it's important to know how to tell whether she has a potentially serious problem, or whether she is experiencing temporary stuttering as she becomes more sure of her language skills. Temporary cases of disfluency can be caused by children's rapidly expanding vocabulary and language skills during a period of "fast mapping." During this stage, any number of factors can help bring on a case of language difficulty or stuttering. For example, a new baby in the house, a move, an overbooked schedule, or even a parent who speaks too quickly or demands too much.
With more serious cases, genetics or neurophysiology can play a role as well as the impact of family dynamics. Having a family member who was or is a stutterer increases the risk of a child developing a problem stuttering. And boys are three or four times more likely than girls to have an ongoing problem with stuttering.
So how can you tell whether or not to worry? What are the signs of a temporary language blip, rather than a more serious problem? One way to tell, according to Hannah Essenburg, a speech therapist based in Menlo Park, California, is to watch for facial and behavioral clues.
"It is important to notice whether your child is squinting her eyes when she stutters, or whether you see strain in her neck or face, unusual blinking, or whether it looks otherwise as if speech is difficult," says Essenburg. Signs like these indicate a more serious problem. If you see them, consider taking your child in for an evaluation from a licensed speech therapist.
Here are a few tips to help your child at home:
How To Boost Your Child's Speech Skills
- Create a welcoming environment in which your child can speak without interruptions.
- Take a tip from Mr. Rogers by modeling slow, smooth speech and positively reinforce your child's fluent speech.
- If your child has been struggling with stuttering for more than six months and other risk factors are present, find a qualified speech therapist to work with them. There is no shame in seeking help, and early intervention can make a big difference.
- Reduce the number of questions you ask your child to reduce the amount of pressure she feels when speaking.
- Let your child know that everyone has trouble with some words some of the time and that it's OK. Let her know that you love her the way she is.
Parents don’t cause a stuttering problem. But they are in a unique position to create the kind of comfortable, low-pressure environment in which a child can communicate naturally and easily.