Speech is one of the most difficult skills a child has to master. Being able to speak fluently is a confidence-booster. Stammering, or stuttering, is a speech disorder where the person knows what he wants to say, but has difficulty saying it because of repetition, prolongation, prolonged pauses or cessation of sounds. About 1 in 10 children less than age 10 stutter.

What causes stuttering?

No one knows for sure what causes stuttering. Your child can inherit stuttering. It may also be due to some developmental factors. Stuttering is commoner in boys and may run in families.

To speak fluently, there must be timely communication between different brain parts, and between the brain and the muscles that control talking and breathing. If anything breaks this path, stuttering may occur. 

Features of stuttering

Features of stuttering include repeating sounds, such as saying A-a-a-a-acrra, prolonging certain sounds such as bbbbbbbread, and using many filler words like erm, and uhm. Stutterers also refrain from eye contact while struggling to speak. Stuttering becomes more manifest when the child feels self-conscious about his stuttering and tries hard not to show it. Examples of such situations are reading aloud or answering a question in class, and talking to a stranger or a person in authority.

A stuttering child may develop movements such as eye blinking, stamping of feet and tapping fingers alongside stuttering. These initially start as a way of hiding stuttering but become habits later on. Children may also avoid saying sounds or words that make their stuttering obvious. They may pretend not to know the answer to a question, or pretend to have forgotten what they want to say, to avoid speaking. Other effects are avoiding social situations because of a fear of stuttering, such as not wanting to attend parties, changing the style of speech to prevent stuttering, and feeling painful emotions because of stuttering.

Developmental stuttering

In preschool children, stuttering is often developmental. It is as if the child thinks faster than he can speak. Symptoms are initially mild, and may get better or worse. With developmental stuttering, stuttering occurs at the beginning of words and is not very frequent. It does not frustrate the child. Most people recover by adolescence, especially girls.

Acquired stuttering

A child may acquire stuttering later at school age or older. Stuttering may follow a severe illness or brain disease. We call this neurologic stuttering. It is not common among children.  

How to help your child who stutters

If your preschool child stutters, he only needs your education and reassurance. Gently praise him when he speaks fluently. When he stutters, point it out without scolding him. Ask him nicely to repeat whatever words or phrase he stutters on. Create a calm environment at home and speak calmly as well. Practice turn-taking as a family. Do not interrupt each other or speak quickly.

If your child’s stuttering gets worse with age, or is accompanied by him wanting to avoid speaking, you need to see a doctor. Likewise if your older child suddenly begins to stutter. A speech therapist manages stuttering. Therapy is most effective if started early. There are also electronic devices that are rarely prescribed to improve fluency in a stuttering child.

Stuttering can be damaging to a child’s self-esteem. It is involuntary. In children, it may get better as they grow. Parental support is needed to help a stuttering child. Those who stutter severely need to see a doctor for timely referral to a speech therapist.

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