Stuttering (or stammering) is common in toddlers/preschoolers. It can mean a variety of things:
- Thinking is going faster than talking. The child knows what they want to say but are having a hard time getting it out of the mouth. (motor issue)
- Thinking is slower than talking. The child doesn’t know what to say but is trying to talk anyway. (Cognitive/receptive language issue)
- Words are not coming. The child knows what they want to say but are having trouble forming it into words. (expressive language issue)
- Slow tongue/lips. The child is saying the words at the right pace but the mouth isn’t moving up to speed. (motor issue).
- Insecurity. The child has abilities that are technically fine but fear or stress is compromising performance. (emotional issue).
The last reason is difficult to deal with because a child can feel insecure for any number of reasons, sometimes irrational ones. Sometimes they are embarrassed because of their own stammering—my three year old used to give up on himself and say, exasperated, “Mommy, I can’t say it!” And this only made him stutter more. Sometimes children get insecure or fearful about something totally unrelated—a vacuum, or a time ago when they heard an adult yell at somebody—and they carry it over to their language processing. So if you suspect insecurity or stress as the reason for stuttering, that can be more a “time will tell” situation. As soon as they let that fear or embarrassment go, they will get better on their own. (Or maybe they will need ministry in that area, but the stuttering will fix itself as you minister there.)
For the other reasons, some attention may be needed. Experts generally encourage adults to not correct a child’s stuttering. But the littler the child, the better I personally believe that it is. An older child may be self-conscious, but little ones tend not to be. And as my three year old showed me, they can get more self-conscious from noticing the problem, not from receiving help/correction.
Now it is insensitive to jump on a child—I’m not suggesting that at all. The main thing they need is grace, not insensitivity. Give them time, patience, and some help if necessary. If you suspect they know what they want to say but can’t get it out, don’t fill it in for them unless you are pretty sure. Just stop the child while they’re stammering and say something helpful like, “Ok, stop for a second… Ok, try again!” This gives them a chance to get out of the rut they were in. If they are having a persistent problem in this area for over six months, I’d try an occupational therapist to see if there are signs of other delays in the sensory-motor system.
If you suspect they don’t know exactly what they want to say but are thinking as they try to form words, say something like, “Hold on. Let’s think.” Give them a moment to get their wits about them and say something helpful like, “hmmm…” Lots of times you can see kids trying to think—they roll their eyes up or furrow their eyebrows. When they look like they’ve got it, prompt them, “You got it? Ok, now say it.” Or whatever you want. If they are having persistent problem in this area for over six months, I’d try a speech therapist to see if there are signs of a receptive/expressive language problem.
If the child’s problem is in their mouth, you can sometimes see them having trouble. Their lips, tongue, or mouth muscles might not be moving right. They might have speech problems too, that comes from not using their tongue right. My Early Intervention friend says they have all kinds of activities to bring more attention to a child’s mouth/muscles including sucking, blowing, holding things in their teeth, funny sounds, etc. So this type of speech problem is probably most benefited by a speech professional. If your child is over 3 years old, you can try an independent speech therapist. Once they get their muscle problem dealt with, the articulation and movement will be much clearer.
Lots of kids use baby talk until they are four, which makes experts claim you shouldn’t do anything until then. But I don’t agree. If your child is having articulation problems that you can’t correct with simple modeling at home, you should call Early Intervention. If it turns out to be no big deal, some little attention won’t hurt. And if it turns out to be a sensory-motor problem, it can be best dealt with earlier rather than later. Lots of times these are the kids who didn’t suck a pacifier or their thumb when they were little, or didn’t put things in their mouth like most babies. And they just need a little rewiring.
But don’t be afraid to do some simple phonics and speech work at home. Don’t shame your child for not being able to speak, but don’t ignore it either. Most kids should have all their phonics by about four years old. Some kids have one or two weaknesses, but they shouldn’t have more than that.
One last thing: a child that stammers may go through periods where the stammering abates and then reoccurs. This is another reason why some experts say you should wait until four or five years to get professional help. For kids who are either very verbal or under verbal, some stuttering is probably normal. The body goes through developmental spurts where one part of the brain grows and the rest has to catch up, which can cause dysjunction in the language process (because so many different parts of the brain/motor system are used simultaneously to talk). So don’t panic if you work on the stammer and then it suddenly shows up six months later. It might last a month or two and then abate again. Or it might follow a pattern, such as when trying to think of the right question to ask, starting a novel statement, or perhaps when trying to give answers… but it shouldn’t be in all those situations. As long as it is under control in this way, don’t panic. If it gets worse as the child reaches four, or doesn’t make progress, then you need help. Most HMOs cover a certain amount of speech therapy so it really isn’t a big deal to get an evaluation if you are curious.