"Wait and see" isn't always the best option.
In my personal life, the question I get most from friends who are parents of toddlers is this: Should I be worried about my child’s stuttering? And there is certainly good reason; when a typically-developing child is between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, her vocabulary absolutely explodes from around 50 words to 500 words. As her little toddler mouth tries to keep up with her growing toddler brain, it is not unusual for around 7 out of every 100 words spoken to be disfluent. With that in mind, it can be difficult for parents to know when to reach out for help.
Here are the facts: about five percent of all children will stutter for six months or more. Of the children in this group, about 75-80% will eventually grow out of it, or spontaneously recover. This is why we often hear that a pediatrician has told parents to “wait and see” or that childhood stuttering is normal. If you are worried about that 20-25% chance that your child’s stuttering will persist, “waiting” and “seeing” probably don’t feel like comfortable options. So let’s take a look at some of the risk factors that will help you determine if your child’s stuttering is more likely to continue: family history, sex, age of onset, other speech or language deficits, and time since onset.
Does anyone in your family have a history of stuttering? You may have to ask around to find out, because sometimes it was successfully treated at a young age. Hereditary factors often play a role in a child’s development of stuttering, so if it runs in your family, you have more reason to be concerned.
At the age of onset (usually 2-3 years old), the ratio of boys to girls is nearly even. However, as children get older, the sex ratio increases and boys outnumber girls by about 4 to 1. So, if your child is a boy, the chances of his stuttering persisting are higher.
Age of Onset
At what age did your child begin stuttering? Typical childhood stuttering usually develops between the ages of 2 and 3. If your child began stuttering after 3 years of age, there is more likelihood that he will continue to stutter.
Additional Speech or Language Deficits
Does your child have any other speech or language delays that you’ve noticed? These may include speech sound deficits or language delays. Research has shown that children who have co-occurring speech or language deficits are more likely to continue to stutter.
Time Since Onset
How long has it been since your child began stuttering? Typical childhood stuttering usually goes away in 3 to 6 months, so you have reason to be concerned if your child’s stuttering lasts longer than this.
So let’s put it all together, shall we? If your child has one or more of these risk factors, it doesn’t automatically mean that his stuttering will persist or get worse. But let’s say he’s been stuttering for four months, has an uncle who stuttered as a child, and is a boy. My advice would be to seek the help of a licensed speech-language pathologist in your area to see if speech therapy would be appropriate.
If your child is young (2-5 years old), the speech-language pathologist may only provide indirect therapy, in which you, the parent, learn strategies for modifying the speaking environment in your home. Let me be clear, stuttering is NOT caused by the way you speak to your child; however, speaking more slowly, allowing for pause time before you respond, using child-friendly vocabulary, and carving out extra one-on-one time for your child can help to reduce disfluencies. For more information on these strategies: 5 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Preschooler's Stuttering
If it is determined that direct speech therapy is necessary, your child will love it! Speech therapy is fun and effective. When it comes to treatment for young children who stutter, my fluency professor in graduate school put it best: It won’t hurt, and it will probably help.
The bottom line: trust your gut as a parent. Research has shown that a parent’s feelings about their child’s stuttering is a determining factor in whether or not the stuttering will persist. So if you are concerned about it, your concern is reason enough to seek help.
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Guitar, Barry. Stuttering: An Integrated Approach to its Nature and Treatment, 4th ed;, 2014, pp. 296-298.
Sawyer, Jean & Matteson, Colleen & Ou, Hua & Nagase, Takahisa. (2017). The Effects of Parent-Focused Slow Relaxed Speech Intervention on Articulation Rate, Response Time Latency, and Fluency in Preschool Children Who Stutter. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. 60. 1-16. 10.1044/2016_JSLHR-S-16-0002.
Walsh, B., Bostian, A., Tichenor, S., Brown, B., & Weber, C. (2020). Disfluency characteristics of 4- and 5- Year Old Children Who Stutter and Their Relationship to Stuttering Persistence and Recovery. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. https://doi.org/10.1044/2020_JSLHR-19-00395