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Speech Problems

It's cute when Cookie Monster says, "Me want cookie," but if your 3-year-old does it, it may give you pause.

Problem: Mispronouncing and lisping
How it sounds: L's and R's become W's ("rabbit" is "wabbit"); blends like ST and SL are distorted ("stop" is pronounced "top"); S turns into TH or SH ("sing" becomes "thing" or "shing").

What you can do: When your child mispronounces a word, casually repeat it back to him correctly ("Yes, that's a cute rabbit").

When to seek help: Kids aren't expected to master L, R, and S until age 6, so most won't need intervention by then, says Marilyn Agin, M.D., coauthor of The Late Talker. But talk to your pediatrician if your child's tongue protrudes when he speaks or if, by the time he's 3, you still can't understand more than half of what he says. There could be hearing loss, or he may need to see a speech therapist to determine whether weak mouth muscles or immature speech patterns are causing him to mispronounce words.

Problem: Most words start with the same sound
What it sounds like: One letter is substituted for most consonants. For example, nearly every word starts with D: "I want to go to the store" becomes "Me wanna doh doo duh door." May also replace a whole class of consonants with ones easier to pronounce -- i.e., G's come out as D's.

What you can do: Casually repeat what your child says using the correct consonant sounds. Also, try modeling lip movements for him and making a game out of having him say difficult sounds in front of a mirror.

When to seek help: If the pattern lasts for more than six months.

Problem: Stuttering
What it sounds like: Words or parts of words are prolonged, repeated, or tough to get out.

What you can do: Allow your child to finish his sentences. Don't rush him, maintain eye contact, and be sure to bring up open-ended topics like "I'll bet you did fun things at preschool." This way, he's free to answer however he chooses, or not at all.

Expect increased stuttering when he's excited. Try to keep up a regular routine, since stress and anxiety can cause your child to stutter more. Use simple sentences and speak slowly when talking about things you know will rile him.

When to seek help: Though experts don't know why, many children experience a normal period of stuttering between ages 2 1/2 and 4 that can last for about six months, during which they'll repeat entire words ("I want, want, want..."). But even at that age, if he gets stuck on sounds (like "c- c- c- cookie"), there's a long air break in the middle of a sentence, or stuttering becomes more frequent, and these conditions last longer than three months, have him checked out. Other signs that your child may have a problem include visible tensing of the face or throat, hand wringing, and foot stomping when he's trying to speak.