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Does Your Toddler Stutter? When to Worry and What You Can Do
PHOTO BY Philippe Put/Flickr Creative Commons
  • “Ma-ma-ma-my name is…!” Have you noticed that your toddler or preschooler sometimes stumbles on his words, especially when he’s excited or upset? Young kids are still learning how to say words and put them together, so experiencing hiccups and bumps along the way is natural. 

    It’s actually not uncommon for children between 2 to 5 years old to go through a stuttering stage. “At this age, it is called developmental stuttering,” Jerilee Casas, a certified speech pathologist, told SmartParenting.com.ph. Most kids outgrow stuttering on their own, but sometimes professional intervention might be needed. If your child stutters, here’s what you need to know about it. 

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    What is stuttering
    Stuttering, also called dysfluency, is a disruption in the normal fluency and flow of speech, according to Mayo Clinic. It comes in many forms, explains Casas. We’re most familiar with it when we hear a repetition of a sound or a syllable, especially at the beginning of a word (“B-b-b-ball!”). Sometimes it’s also the prolonging of sounds, like “ssssss-sorry” or having interruptions in speech with fillers, like “Um… um… he took my… um…” Children who stutter might also have “blocks,” it’s when your child opens his mouth to say something but gets stuck before any sound comes out.

    “Normal language dysfluency often starts between the ages of 18 and 24 months and tends to come and go up to the age of 5,” says WebMd. Also worth noting: Girls are more likely than boys to outgrow stuttering, according to the Stuttering Foundation.  

    One in five children’s stuttering will seem severe enough for their parents to worry, and one in 20 will stutter for more than six months. If a child’s stuttering does not go away until then, Casas recommends that parents consult a certified speech pathologist. (Click our guide here for info on how to find one.) The right intervention and lots of parental support will go a long way in helping a child overcome his stuttering and prevent it from continuing until adulthood. 

    What causes stuttering
    There’s no definite answer as to what causes children to stutter. Experts sometimes point to genetics -- it can can run in the family. It can also be down to faulty connections in the brain. “Sometimes there is interference in the interaction between language and the muscles that control speech,” says Casas.

    There is, however, no real way to prevent stuttering. Focus should instead go to avoiding aggravating a child’s stuttering, explains Casas. “A child who is easily frustrated can lead to tensed muscles and increase dysfluency. The responses of listeners to your child's stuttering -- like teasing -- can trigger emotional responses that could further hinder his speech.”

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    In most cases, stuttering goes away on its own as the child grows older and gets a better grasp of language and speech. On the other hand, it’s a parent’s job to observe if their child’s stuttering is getting better or worse. “It is important to predict whether the stuttering is likely to continue,” says the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA). Indications that therapy and intervention are needed to treat stuttering include: stuttering lasting for more than six months, associated behaviors like constant blinking or facial grimaces, and presence of other speech or language disorders. 

    The therapy and treatment program for children who stutter can vary depending on the child, but most involve behavioral approaches. “Therapy teaches kids skills to control or monitor the speed at which they speak, more relaxed ways of speaking, and how to monitor and control their breathing,” says Casas. 

    Grade school children who stutter are advised to see a speech therapist. “Especially if you’ve observed that your child is already aware of his difficulty,” says Casas. “You want to avoid him having a negative image of himself because of that.” 

    How parents can help
    Whether your child is undergoing therapy or not for his stuttering, providing a supportive and accepting atmosphere is most important. In addition, there are a few things you should keep in mind when speaking to him. One of the main rules to follow is to always try and talk calmly and unhurriedly. You want your child to relax and slow down his speaking, so be his example, Casas advises. Here are some other steps you can take: 

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    • Provide opportunities for your child to express himself more freely.
    • Avoid taking the role of an interrogator/interviewer.
    • Acknowledge the things your child says by commenting and responding.
    • Let him know that you are listening and understanding his message. Use body language to show it – turn and face your child when he’s talking to you, nod in agreement, squat down to his eye level, etc. 
    • Decrease criticisms and interruptions when talking to your child.

    Jerilee Casas is a certified speech pathologist and a member of the Philippine Association of Speech Pathologists. She practices her profession at Therapeutic Intervention for Kids (ThInKids), located at 5 Tomas Morato Avenue, Quezon City. 

    Other sources: ASHA, Mayo Clinic, KidsHealth, BabyCenter

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