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If your preschooler stutters – repeating words or initial word sounds over and over, unable to get out what he wants to say – he’s in good company. A recent study of over 1600 children found that 11% of four-year-olds stutter or had stuttered when younger. This is more than twice the previous estimates of the incidence of stuttering.

So stuttering is more “normal” than we’d thought. In addition, stuttering is not, as we’d thought, a big problem. Children who stutter do not have poorer outcomes than other kids. In fact, the study found that stuttering was associated with better language development, better non-verbal skills, and excellent adjustment, compared to other non-stuttering four-year-olds.

If your child stutters, it’s not a huge cause for worry.

This is a good thing, since the level of resolution from stuttering is low. Only 6.3% of children who stutter no longer stutter 12 months after they began. Most children who stutter do so for longer than a year.

The cause of stuttering is mysterious. There appears to be an hereditary element, since stuttering sometimes runs in families. It can be a result of early brain injury, perhaps at birth. But also much stuttering is simply a result of having lots to say and not much skill in saying it. Preschoolers have big ideas but their ability to find the right words to express them is only just developing. It’s just hard to get it all out.

Parents of all small children – those who stutter and those who don’t (yet) – should follow these simple rules:

  1. Be patient when your child speaks. Look her in the eye, give her your full attention, and listen calmly. Let your face be relaxed and unworried.
  2. Avoid finishing your child’s sentences for him. Give him time to find the right words and to say what he wants to say.
  3. Don’t correct your child’s speech. Little kids do mispronounce things or use the wrong words. But correcting your child’s speech makes her self-conscious and can contribute to over-thinking her words and make her stutter. If you feel you must guide your child, simply repeat what she said, using the correct form. If the child says, “I saw two mouses,” you can be appropriately amazed and say, “Really? You saw two mice? Where?”
  4. Do not permit others to make a big deal over your child’s stuttering. This includes siblings, next-door neighbors, grandparents and preschool teachers. An accepting attitude is what will help your child most.
  5. If stuttering persists, seems to really be getting in your child’s way or is upsetting to him, or if there is a history of stuttering that has persisted into adulthood among family members, then talk with a speech pathologist for advice.
  6. Most of all, never, ever punish your child for stuttering, never reward your child for not stuttering, and never say something like, “I’ll listen to you when you can talk without stuttering.” Stuttering is not a bad habit your child can overcome if she just works at it. It’s not her fault.

If the causes of stuttering are mysterious, so are the reasons why stuttering goes away. Nothing you do will make it disappear, though things you do can make stuttering more likely or more difficult to overcome. As your child grows in his ability to use language, most likely his stuttering will evaporate.

As is often the case in child development, waiting – just waiting – is the very best response.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.