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01 Dec 2021

Positive Parenting: I think my child may have a stammer – what can I do?

Positive Parenting: I think my child may have a  stammer – what can I do?

Approximately 5 to 10 percent of all children will stutter for some period in their life, lasting from a few weeks to several years

Stammering (or stuttering) happens when children or adults have difficulty getting their words out. As a result, their speech can sound broken up and this is often called ‘disfluency’. Some kinds of disfluent speech are a completely typical part of children’s speech and language development. However, there are some types of disfluency that might signal your child has a difficulty that could lead to stammering, and it’s important to know the difference so that you can seek help from your local speech and language therapist if needed.

What does disfluency sound like?
Most children have times when they might sound like they are stammering, especially if they are upset, tired, excited, if they are eager to tell you something or if something has made them angry. Your little one is still learning how to make the right sounds and put their words in the right order to make their message known, and when they are upset, their mouths can’t always keep up with their brains and their feelings! During these times, they might not even notice that they can’t get their words out. You might hear them say the same word a few times, e.g. ‘he took my, my, my truck’ or ‘I lost – I lost – I lost my ball’. Their sentences might sound a little bit broken up, e.g. ‘My doll… my baby is gone’ or they might use lots of ‘um’ and ‘ah’ in the middle of their sentences. These moments can make your child sound very disfluent, as their sentences sound bumpy, but it’s actually a normal process and almost all children will experience it from time to time. This can happen often up until your child reaches the age of 4, but might happen less often up until the age of 6.
There are other types of disfluency that sound a little different and can suggest that your child might be having a lot of difficulty getting their words out. If you hear your child getting stuck on a word, or repeating a part of a word many times e.g. ‘Mu-mu-mu-mummy’, or if they drag out a sound for a long time e.g. ‘Paaa-ss me the toy’, it would be useful to take a note of how often you hear it happening. When children are aware that their sentences and words are bumpy, they might become embarrassed and avoid speaking; you might be able to tell just by looking at them that they are having difficulty, as they might seem tense or frustrated. If you notice these behaviours in your child, we recommend you contact your local speech and language therapist for advice.

How should I react when my child is disfluent?
It’s difficult to know what to do as a parent when your child is disfluent and it can be quite upsetting - should you try to help them by filling in the word or finishing the sentence, or should you ask them to slow down and take their time? While this might be your first reaction, it will likely make your child feel even more frustrated. It’s usually best to wait and let them finish, and talk back to them in a slow and relaxed way, as this will naturally help them to calm down without drawing too much attention to their difficulty. It’s important that your child knows you are there to listen, even if it takes them a little longer to get the words out.

Are some children more likely to stammer than others?
There are certain factors that make some children more likely to stammer than others. Boys are more likely to stammer than girls, and a lot of studies have found that stammering runs in families, so if you or another family member stammer or have ever stammered, we recommend seeking advice from a speech and language therapist about your child’s disfluency. Having other speech and language differences, for example if your child has delayed language or advanced language skills or if they are often difficult to understand, also puts them at higher risk of stammering. If your child becomes disfluent very suddenly, or if your child has experienced a traumatic or upsetting event around the same time as they started becoming disfluent, this is something you should mention to your speech and language therapist.

When should I seek further advice?
You should take note of what behaviours your child shows when they are disfluent, and check with the list above to see if they are more like normal non-fluency or if they are a cause for concern. If you notice this disfluency continuing on for longer than 6 months, if it seems to be getting worse, or if your child is reacting negatively to this disfluency (e.g. becoming embarrassed/ avoiding talking etc) has any of the risk factors mentioned above, you should get in contact with a speech and language therapist.
This article was contributed by Speech & Language Therapists with the Little Voices team in ABC Start Right. ABC Start Right is a member of Parenting Limerick, a network of parenting and family support organisations. For more information on this and other topics go to www.loveparenting.ie.

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