When to seek help for a child’s stutter

Family
Mother and daughter outdoors in a meadow.

You know the drill, “Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy!” It’s common for 3- and 4-year-olds to repeat and stumble over their words as they try to tell you why they’re so excited.
Luann Mezzatesta, a senior speech language pathologist at Tidelands Health Pediatric Rehabilitation Services at Georgetown, says this sort of developmentally appropriate stuttering is normal and nothing to be concerned about.
“They know more than they can actually express,” Mezzatesta says. “Or they’re just extremely excited and can’t slow down to think about what they’re saying.”
So when should a parent be concerned that a child may have a persistent stutter and seek professional help? Mezzatesta says parents should look out for certain characteristics of the child’s speech, including:
A block: This is where a child gets stuck and cannot complete a word, Mezzatesta says. A child may start to say a word, then find themselves unable to continue with the rest of it.
A prolongation: This is when a person gets stuck on a certain sound in the word and just keeps voicing that one sound until they can move on to the rest of the word. When saying a word like “save” the pronunciation may sound a little bit more like, “sssssss-ave,” with a long “s” sound.
A sound repetition: This is defined as when a person repeats a specific syllable or sound, such as “b-b-b-b-baby.”
There also may be some notable secondary physical characteristics or movements the child makes while stuttering, Mezzatesta says. These movements are the child’s way of maneuvering through the stutter.
“For example, they might blink their eyes or stomp their foot or do something with their hands – those are all things that would be indicative of a true stutter versus normal childhood speech patterns,” Mezzatesta says. “A child may also exhibit abnormal breathing patterns as well.”

Treatment

Treatment for a child who stutters focuses on teaching new ways of speaking to improve fluency and by offering ways to compensate, or manage, the condition in the best way possible.
A speech language pathologist working with a young child may use play-based therapy, which can include role-playing, puppets, songs, and other “scripted” play, to help a child through different triggers that prompt stuttering.
In an older child, a primary goal of speech therapy is to increase the child’s comfort level in uncomfortable speaking situations, Mezzatesta says. Not only can that help improve language fluency, but it’s important to support social and emotional growth.
Even if a child is seemingly able to overcome a stutter completely, it is always possible it may come back in adulthood, Mezzatesta says. That is why it’s important that the child gains self-confidence as part of the speech therapy process.
“Ultimately, one of the primary goals of speech therapy is to instill in a child the belief that they don’t need to be limited or defined by their stuttering at any point in their lives,” Mezzatesta says. “If we accomplish that, then we’ve made a lot of progress.”
If you believe your child is struggling with a speech impediment, you should bring the issue to the attention of the child’s physician, who can refer you to a speech language pathologist.

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