Stuttering is a complicated speech problem. The cause and recovery is still a little mysterious. It can be very frustrating for those who live with it.

This article breaks down what you need to know about stuttering, when you should be concerned, and where to find the information that’s right for your child.

What is stuttering?

Stuttering is referred to as a disfluency of speech. Fluency is the ability to speak smoothly, accurately, and confidently. Disfluency is the opposite: Speakers struggle with sounds and the physical process of speaking. People who stutter can sometimes feel tension in the muscles of their face, head, and neck. They may even lose their voice for a few seconds when they’re struggling with words.

Many children will experience disfluencies as they learn to speak. Beginning at about 18 months old (or earlier), your child’s speaking may occasionally include stuttering as they work on new sounds and vocabulary.

Typically, this kind of disfluency will include the repetition of a word. It probably doesn’t seem to bother your child when it’s happening. For example, your child will say, “I-I-I like ice cream,” but show no sign of tension or struggle. You may also notice that your child is most disfluent when tired, or rushing to get words out faster than they can say them.

Children who stutter as a speech problem often struggle with a syllable, rather than a whole word, and they may repeat the sound more than just a couple of times. Your child may even ask you why it’s hard for them to speak.

You may notice your child’s eyes, neck, and mouth show tension as they work through speaking difficulties. Signs like these are fairly consistent, and don’t seem tied to whether your child is tired or excited. Of course, the symptoms will be mild in some children, and more severe in others.

Does your child’s stuttering require treatment?

Therapists differ on the right time to treat stuttering, and on the best therapies. An article published a few years ago got a lot of media attention because it seemed to suggest that children don’t need any treatment at all and will resolve their stuttering as they grow.

But the researchers were suggesting that some children will not need clinical therapy and that their stuttering will end on its own. This sometimes happens with a little help at home, or as a child grows.

Many researchers now suggest that all stutterers be evaluated for specific information, including:

  1. The age of the child. If a child is still stuttering by age 5 or starts stuttering after age 3, they may benefit from therapy.
  2. The child’s gender. Boys might be more likely to stutter for longer than girls.
  3. Family history. Stuttering appears to be genetic, meaning it runs in families.
  4. The severity of the child’s stuttering. Those who struggle more are also more likely to benefit from working with a trained professional.
  5. The cause of stuttering. Periods of deep stress can precede the start of stuttering, so knowing what’s going on in a child’s life is helpful knowledge for professionals who are evaluating whether speech therapy will make a difference.

When to seek help for stuttering

If your child is stuttering and a professional says therapy will help, it’s best not to wait. Studies show the later a child receives therapy for stuttering, the harder it can be to resolve the problem. Additionally, stuttering can cause changes in a child’s social skills and physical well-being. Early therapy can make a real difference as they grow.

You might wonder why all children aren’t treated for stuttering. If speech therapy can help, why not try it? Some research suggests that the focus on stuttering, from parents, teachers, and therapists, can actually make the problem worse for a lot of children. Stuttering seems to resolve itself in the same number of children, regardless of whether the children have therapy. Many experts say it’s fine to let some children “grow out of it,” if they have been evaluated for those points of information listed above.

Where to find help for stuttering

If your child is evaluated as a stutterer, you’ll find helpful information from these organizations.

  • The Stuttering Foundation has extensive information available for families affected by stuttering. You’ll also find inspirational stories from stutterers who have excelled despite their speech problem at www.stutteringhelp.org.
  • National Stuttering Association is a good resource to find local support groups. They also provide information to help people, from adults to children, manage their stuttering. You can find others having similar experiences at www.westutter.org.
  • International Stuttering Association offers information from around the world and publishes a yearly newsletter with updates on research and book recommendations, among other things. Helpfully, the ISA website can be translated into more than 40 languages with the click of a mouse. Check them out at www.isastutter.org.

Next steps

Researchers have noticed that parents are often more upset about stuttering than children are. It’s important to keep that in mind. If you notice your child is stuttering, give it some time to figure out whether it’s a stage of development, or an actual speech problem. If you still think stuttering is the issue, then talk to your doctor so you can address it as soon as possible.