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Ask Dr. Sears: Squelching a Stuttering Problem

Q. My son just turned 3, and I have noticed that he's begun stuttering whenever he speaks. Do kids who start stuttering at this age usually outgrow it? I've read that kids who develop speech impediments at a later stage (around 4 or 5 years old) have a greater chance of it being a problem throughout their life. Should I be concerned, and if so, what can I do to help correct it?

A.
Between 2 and 3 years of age, it's normal for many children to go through a speech developmental stage called "normal dysfluency," which is a milder form of stuttering that can be self-correcting. As toddlers learn to talk, they'll frequently repeat syllables, such as "I-I-I ..." or "L-L-L-like..." It's also common to hear them use "hesitation syllables," such as "uh" and "um," as they change words or thoughts. Toddlers become particularly dysfluent when they are excited, anxious, in a hurry to speak, or when they feel pressured to talk or answer a question. Normal dysfluency turns into stuttering when the repetition becomes more frequent, and is associated with symptoms of speech anxiety, such as lip twitches or blinking. Also, a stutterer will repeat a syllable many times. For example, a stuttering child will say, "Ca-Ca-Ca-Ca...Can I have a cookie?" A stuttering child will often feel embarrassed or frustrated by not being able to form the sounds that they want to say. Here's what you can do to assist your child in overcoming his dysfluency: Help your child feel comfortable speaking. The golden rule of speech development is that a child should learn how to speak comfortably before learning to speak correctly. So, encourage your child instead of simply correcting him. No matter how silly a sentence may be, listen to your child, and respond to him. And, enjoy his amusing plays on words, because they seldom last! You want your child to feel comfortable as he learns to communicate with sounds and body language, and not to feel as though he's being judged on whether what he's saying is correct. While your child is speaking, let him know you're interested in what he has to say by maintaining eye contact -- this helps him really feel that you enjoy listening to him. Resist the temptation to direct him to slow down when he's trying to talk, doing so may make him even more self-conscious, and hamper his speech. Model proper speech. If your child is having trouble getting a sentence out, and he seems frustrated, simply repeat it back to him the way it should sound. The more he hears correct speech from you, the sooner this stage will pass. But remember to be patient while your child is trying to form sounds. If he senses that you are hurrying him along or prompting him to "speak correctly," that will only increase his frustration and dysfluency. Encourage him to tell familiar stories. Even a full-blown stutterer will stammer less when he tells a story he knows well and is comfortable conveying. Encourage him to talk about his favorite activities, or to recite a story from a beloved book. The more your child feels in control of what he's saying, the more likely he is to speak fluently. When to consult a speech therapist. In the case of normal dysfluency, a child should gradually begin to speak clearly and without much repetition by 4 years of age. As a general guideline for when to seek speech therapy, if your child's speech issues plateau (meaning you don't see any improvement over a six-month period), then it's time to consult with a speech therapist who specializes in stuttering. Also, watch your child's body language when he talks. If you see that he is becoming more and more self-conscious and frustrated by not being able to get sounds and words out to his liking, or is starting to clam up because of his speech frustrations, those are major clues that it's time to seek professional help.

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