Everything Parents Need To Know About Stuttering In Toddlers & Young Kids
What’s considered normal for speech development, and when is it time to seek a professional evaluation?
When you have a baby, you wait for what feels like ages to hear their first word, said in their perfect little voice. That baby grows into a chatty toddler with all sorts of sweet, sometimes hilarious questions about their world. So it’s natural to freak out a little if you hear them start to stutter. So, is it normal for toddlers to stutter as they’re getting the hang of new words and longer sentences? And when does stuttering signal the need for speech therapy?
Experts agree that stuttering is not a reason to panic. Many kids will grow right on out of it, and those who don’t can learn how to handle it like pros with the help of a speech therapist (and a supportive parent on their team).
Is it normal for toddlers to stutter?
Yes, stuttering is sometimes just part of speech development, according to experts. The developmentally normal kind of verbal hang-ups are called “disfluencies.” These tend to pop up between ages 2 and 6, at times when your child is learning new words and speech skills.
“When they have a vocabulary burst, sometimes they have a hard time processing at a quicker rate, so they’ll do whole-word repetition at the beginning of a sentence. An example might be, ‘I-I-I want a cookie,’ or they might repeat phrases. For example, ‘I want-I want-I want to go to the store.’ Those whole-word and phrase repetitions are pretty common and considered developmentally appropriate,” says Margaret Holladay, M.C.D., CCC-SLP, pediatric speech-language pathologist at Children's of Alabama.
Another normal disfluency would be using interjections repeatedly, like “um, um, um,” Holladay says.
Signs of true stuttering
Unlike disfluencies, true stuttering is not a normal part of development. Kids who stutter may repeat the first sound in a word, Holladay explains, like “pu-pu-pu-puppy,” rather than the whole word. There are other signs to listen for, she says:
- Blocks: “They know what they want to say, but it almost seems like it gets stuck. They just can’t get their mouth to get the word out.”
- Prolongations: “Prolongations are another thing that are often a characteristic of true stuttering, so that’s going to be where you extend the sound. If the word was school bus, they might really hold out that S for an extended period of time, so it might sound like ‘sssssschool bus’ instead of a smooth school bus.”
- Repeating sounds farther along in a sentence: “With typical disfluencies, those are usually going to occur at the beginning of a sentence when they’re trying to formulate their thought. Stuttering is going to occur throughout the sentence.”
- Secondary behaviors: “Those are going to be any physical actions that they’re performing in addition to getting stuck on the words. Some people tap their leg with their hands. They might stomp their foot. We’ve seen people make clicking sounds with their tongue to try to get the word out. Any kind of secondary behavior that you’re seeing in addition to the stuttering can be a cause for concern.”
What about stuttering in toddlers that comes and goes?
Intermittent stuttering in toddlers is usually just a result of normal disfluencies, according to both Holladay and Guyton-Louis, as well as The Stuttering Foundation of America. Disfluencies “tend to come and go,” according to the foundation’s website, as a child learns to use language in new ways. So, don’t be too alarmed if your little one, say, struggles to start their sentences for a short period, then has no difficulties for several weeks, only to have the problem return.
Keep in mind that people who stutter can have days when it happens more and days it happens less, Holladay notes, but The Stuttering Foundation points out that children with a mild stutter will have it more often than not. If it does go away completely and occasionally pops back up, you’re probably dealing with normal disfluencies.
What causes stuttering in toddlers and young kids?
Great question, and it’s one that researchers are still working hard to answer. There are some links to family history — if the child has a close relation who stutters, they may be more likely to do it too. It’s also possible that people who stutter have brains that work slightly differently during speech than others’ brains do, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
When should I worry about my toddler stuttering?
If your child is stuttering after age 4 or their stuttering is accompanied by secondary behaviors, talk to your pediatrician about seeing a speech-language pathologist.
“If it’s going to fade away, you’ll see things start to average out by 4 or 5. Beyond the ages of 4 to 5, we start to look a little bit deeper,” says Tamara Guyton-Louis, M.S., CCC-SLP, pediatric speech-language pathologist at Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation. “The biggest indicator for us is the severity of it, how often it happens, and if there are secondary characteristics. Sometimes you’ll see their mouth groping more. Those are the things that make us like, ooh, that’s a little bit more than just our normal disfluency.”
You should also bring your child’s stuttering to your pediatrician’s attention if it has gone on for six months with no breaks. “Typically the recommendation is if it continues more than six months and doesn’t seem to get better, if you’re noticing those secondary behaviors, and if there’s a family history, those are all good times to talk to the pediatrician about getting a referral for a speech evaluation,” Holladay says.
If you notice your child is getting frustrated by their stuttering or is avoiding speaking in certain situations because of it, you should go ahead and ask for help, Holladay says — speech-language experts want to help kids before any negative feelings about talking set in. Even if you just want someone qualified to tell you that everything is fine, that’s what health providers are there for.
Do toddlers outgrow stuttering?
Some do, if what they’re dealing with is those developmentally normal disfluencies. About 1% of people worldwide stutter, according to The Stuttering Foundation of America. Statistically speaking, your child is unlikely to stutter forever (but even if they do, they’re going to be just fine).
What to do when your child stutters
So your child is stuttering for one reason or another. Do you point it out? Reassure them they can take their time? Act like you don’t notice it at all? It’s hard to know how to be helpful in the moment. Being supportive starts with letting your little one get their thought out in its entirety.
“Allow children the opportunity to complete their sentences,” says Holladay. “They know what they want to say, they’re just having a hard time getting their mouth to produce what they want to say. When people finish their thoughts [for them], it can lead to very negative feelings because they want to speak for themselves.”
Guyton-Louis and Holladay also recommend that parents:
- Talk openly about stuttering with your child. Avoiding the topic can make stuttering feel like something to be ashamed of.
- Reassure your child there’s no need to rush. Try this script from Holladay: “I know it’s really hard for you to get your words out sometimes. Mom and Dad are going to give you as much time as you need to say what you want to say.”
- Slow down your own speech and model what it looks like to take your time when talking.
- Not interrupt your child or try to finish a thought for them.
- Avoid asking your little one to recite verbal sequences, like the letters of the alphabet or counting to a certain number.
- Never refer to your child as “a stutterer.”
For most parents and kids, stuttering is just a natural part of mastering speaking, and something they’ll outgrow on their own. For the small percentage of kids who continue to stutter, there is so much support available and a whole world of resources out there to help them feel in control and confident when they speak.
Margaret Holladay, M.C.D., CCC-SLP, pediatric speech-language pathologist at Children's of Alabama
Tamara Guyton-Louis, M.S., CCC-SLP, pediatric speech-language pathologist at Wolfson Children’s Rehabilitation
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