Stuttering in children can lead to frustration and isolation for some families. But treatment can make communication easier and lead to lasting confidence.
As many as 1 in 12 U.S. children has a voice, speech, or language disorder. This includes stuttering.
Still, there are many misconceptions about this.
Children who struggle to communicate with those around them may have a disorder. Knowing how to tell if your child needs help is the first step.
Treatment depends on the condition’s severity. It also depends on the child’s symptoms, age, and health status.
Although there’s no “cure” for non-developmental stuttering, early intervention can:
- Address related behaviors.
- Help children become more self-assured speakers.
- Improve communication and confidence.
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What Is Stuttering? Causes and Symptoms
Stuttering is a break in the flow of a person’s speech.
This is different from repeating words when learning to speak. That’s a normal part of childhood development.
A child who stutters may repeat or prolong sounds, syllables, or words. This can make communicating with those around them difficult.
Symptoms of childhood stuttering may include:
- Frequent interjections, such as “um” or “like.”
- Rapid eye blinking or tension in the face, neck, or body when speaking.
- Repeated sounds, syllables, or words.
- Stretching out sounds for longer than is normal.
- Stuck or blocked speech.
- Stuttering more when emotional, tired, or stressed.
The most common form of stuttering is developmental stuttering. Signs of this may appear between the ages of 2 and 5 years old.Approximately 95% of children who stutter start stuttering before they’re 4 years old. Stuttering resulting from trauma or injury is less common. Children may prove more likely to stutter if they:
- Have a family history of stuttering.
- Have other speech or language disorders.
- Have stuttered for 6 months or longer.
“We always refer to this one analogy that’s called the bucket analogy,” says Lisa Sorkin, MS, CCC-SLP, senior speech-language pathologist at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “The more factors you have in your bucket, the more likely it can be that a child stutters.”
In some cases, stuttering can happen alongside other disorders. These can include ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Diagnosing and Treating Childhood Stuttering
Struggling to communicate without early intervention can lead to social isolation. It can also lead to limited participation in certain activities. This can result in self-esteem issues and poor school performance.
Children with communication disorders often see a speech-language pathologist for diagnosis and treatment. Some may see a child psychiatrist for emotional or behavioral issues.
A stuttering diagnosis at UPMC Children’s includes an interview with parents or caregivers. It also includes a thorough assessment. These depend on the child’s age.
For toddlers and younger children, a speech-language pathologist will:
- Discuss the child’s attitudes toward communication and other possible stuttering-linked behaviors.
- Foster play-based interaction to assess the child’s fluency in different situations.
- Observe the child talking with a family member to listen to their speech patterns.
A specialist or speech-language pathologist may talk about how stuttering affects their learning. They may also talk about how it affects their social life. This can determine whether they’re a candidate for treatment.
Afterward, the specialist or pathologist will discuss their findings with parents or caregivers. Then, when appropriate, they’ll recommend a treatment plan.
Treatments depend on specific needs over time. They may include helping children adjust their behaviors.
This way, they can develop healthy self-worth. There’s also parent-focused treatment based on a parent-child training program.
Treatment may include one-on-one or group therapy.
Teaching a child to track their rate of speech and tension is another example of treatment. Others include teaching a child to speak with less force on the tongue, teeth, and lips (“easy starts”). Parents can also receive coaching to create a positive communication environment at home.
Reframing the Narrative Around Stuttering
Many treatments are effective in improving stuttering. Speech-language pathologists at UPMC Children’s also focus on helping older children and families. This way, they can access the world as well as fluent speakers can.
“How people in that child’s life communicate can be very impactful,” says Allison Baggiano, MS, CCC-SLP, lead speech-language pathologist at UPMC Children’s. “We are trying to reframe the way we look at disabilities.”
“One big misconception is that people who can’t communicate clearly are not intelligent,” says Allison.
“Many parents are worried about how others are going to perceive their child. That’s why what we do in terms of self-advocacy is so important. It’s about reframing the conversation from “fixing” to confidently living with stuttering and easing and reducing communication barriers.”
At UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s Department of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology, treatment for stuttering varies case by case.
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.