Stuttering: what to look for and when to seek help.
Stuttering: what to look for and when to seek help.

Key Points

  • What age should parents notice stuttering? What are the signs and when should parents seek a professional?
  • Normal Dysfluencies vs. True Stuttering
  • Exercises parents can do at home to help with stuttering?

By: Janine Segner

Stuttering can be a scary speech difficulty for many families. It can appear out of nowhere and seem to get only increasingly worse. Read on to learn more about the reasons people stutter, when and if to seek treatment, and what you might be able to do at home to help your child who stutters.

Why do people stutter?

Twin studies have shown that stuttering is often the product of both genetic and environmental factors.  Stuttering occurs more often in both members of identical twins, supporting the finding of some specific genes that may lead to stuttering, carried by both twins.

However, stuttering has also been linked to environmental and congenital factors, or conditions that exist at birth such as prematurity, brain injury, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, and severe anxiety disorders.

What age should parents notice stuttering? What are the signs? When should parents seek a professional?

Stuttering can start almost anytime between the ages of 18 months to 18 years. Most often, however, stuttering begins between the ages of 2 to 5 years. Notably, stuttering is three times more likely to occur with boys.

Oftentimes, stuttering is first noticed during a period of rapid language expansion. In other words, when a child suddenly has access to a vast expressive vocabulary, his brain may have a tough time keeping up with everything he can now say. This is totally normal, and it will often independently correct itself.

Normal dysfluencies are speech characteristics such as:

  • Interjections: Using words such as “like” and “um.” “I want to eat, um, mac and cheese!”
  • Revisions: Changing an entire word or phrase after it has been said. “I have to go… I need to go potty!”
  • Whole word or phrase repetitions: “But, but I don’t want to go!”

On the contrary, true stuttering is characterized by more syllable and sound repetitions as well as blocked and prolonged sounds. A child with true stuttering might sound as follows:

  • “I wa-wa-wa-wanna g-g-g-o home!”
  • “I wwwwwwwwwanna go home!
  • “I………. (silence, noticeably struggling) wanna go home!”

These are often accompanied by tension in the neck or face, secondary behaviors (e.g. eye blinking), or negative reactions to dysfluencies (e.g., frustration). If you notice any of these examples, have your child evaluated by a speech-language pathologist (SLP). The SLP will likely take a language sample and calculate the frequency of dysfluencies. Normal dysfluency is approximately 10% of a person’s speech. If your child presents with greater than 10% dysfluency as observed by the SLP, skilled intervention may be recommended.

What are exercises parents can do at home to help with stuttering?

The good news is that studies have shown that 75% of children who begin to stutter will spontaneously recover. Using the following tips at home can help your child decrease their stuttering on their own:

  • Modified Questioning – The goal of this strategy is to modify the way you speak to reduce the demands on your child.
    1. Reduce number of direct questions in favor of more indirect comments
    2. Parents cannot (and should not) eliminate questions completely
      “Non-Question Starters”
      I wonder…
      I bet…
      Maybe…
      I think…
      I guess
      It looks like…
  • Reduplication and Rephrasing – The goals of this strategies are:
    1. Child can hear what he or she said in an easier, more relaxed way
    2. Child knows that parents have heard what he or she said
    3. Gives parents the opportunity to provide a beneficial language/articulation model

When you reduplicate and rephrase, you repeat what your child has said. For example, if your child says, “I-I-I wa-wa-want to g-g-go outside!” you would say back, “You want to go outside!”

Importantly, parents should reflect both fluent and dysfluent utterances so the child does not feel corrected only on utterances that contain stuttering.

  • Modeling- The goal of this strategy is to provide a calm, relaxed time for your child to listen to smooth language models and practice their own speech with little to no other demands placed on them.
    1. Set aside 10-15 minutes for just you and your child to play. This time should be set aside for you and your child to play with a favorite toy/game where you model slow and relaxed speech.
    2. Allow your child to take the lead in conversation and in play without asking them any questions or giving directions. Simply describe and comment on what he/she is doing.

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Optimal Beginnings partners with families to provide evidence-based, innovative, and individualized treatment that incorporates the whole family. Our focus is on the functional skills an individual needs to develop socially significant behaviors to succeed in school and beyond.

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