By: Katrina Wasserman MA, CCC-SLP

“My three year old just started stuttering. What should I do?”

As a speech-language pathologist, this is a fairly common question.  Children between the ages of two and five may go through periods of stuttering also known as disfluencies. During this early childhood period, a child’s language is expanding at a tremendous rate. Your child is going from speaking in simple phrases to telling elaborate stories. In addition, they are adding to their vocabulary daily. As a result, your child may experience some episodes of dysfluency. You may also notice an increase of dysfluencies when your child is tired or very excited.

Typical childhood disfluencies include repetitions of sounds “P-P-P-Please”, words “Can can can I have it,” or phrases like “I want I want a cookie.” Another common dysfluency is adding filler words like “ummm” and “uh,” or your child may start a sentence and then not finish it.  With typical childhood disfluencies, there are no accompanying behaviors like eye twitches, facial movements, or muscle tension. These behaviors are known as secondary characteristics. Children going through periods of typical disfluencies do not seem to notice it and are not frustrated by it. Children may go through periods of typical disfluencies between the ages of two and five that may last from a few weeks up to a couple of months.

Atypical disfluencies include prolongations like “MMMMMMMom” and blocks like “D—ad.” The disfluencies are usually accompanied by secondary characteristics and the child seems to get frustrated. This may lead to a hesitation to speak or avoidance of words that the child has previously stuttered. Atypical disfluencies are usually more consistent and persist longer than a few months.

How do you know when to go to a speech-language pathologist?

If you notice your child is experiencing atypical disfluencies, experiences disfluencies for 10% of the day or more, or has been stuttering for an extended period of time (6 months), an evaluation is warranted.

What can you do at home?

To facilitate fluent speech at home, the best thing to do is give your child time and attention. Get down on their level and make eye contact as they are speaking. Make sure they do not feel rushed and do not finish their sentence for them. Reduce your rate of speech and talk in a more sing-song manner. This provides a model of speech that enhances fluency in children. It is also recommended to “recast” their dysfluent speech back to the child in a fluent manner.

How will a speech-language pathologist help?If speech and language therapy is recommended, a speech-language pathologist will work with your child to meet his or her individual needs. As every child is different, varied approaches and strategies may work best for your child. He or she may be taught strategies to increase their awareness of their speech, or strategies such as starting to say their words slowly/ gently, breathing techniques to promote breath support, or pausing on the dysfluent word and repeating the word or phrase fluently.