What is stammering and what does it mean for my child?

23 May, 2018
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In my time as a Speech Therapist, I have seen many parents who are worried about their child developing a stammer in early childhood. The truth is, stammering is very common (and normal!) in young children between the ages of 2 and 4. As many as 1 in 20 children may stammer, but as this often coincides with a period of rapid language development, the problem is often transient and the stammer will disappear. However, some stammers stick around and can become a long-term problem with around 1% of adults being affected.

So, what is a stammer?

The severity and type of stammering can differ hugely between individuals, but the following features are commonly seen:

  • Repetition of whole words eg. “and, and, and then he went home.”
  • Repetition of single syllables eg. “t-t-t-tell me a j-j-joke.”
  • Prolonging of sounds eg. “ssssssssometimes I eat tomatoes.”
  • Blocking of sounds ie. mouth is in position, but no sound comes out.
  • Facial tension ie. in muscles around the eyes, nose, lips, neck.
  • Extra body movements as an attempt to push the word out eg. stamping feet, shifting body position, tapping fingers, exaggerated blinking.
  • Disrupted breathing pattern eg. the child may hold his breathe whilst speaking or take an exaggerated breath before speaking.
  • Avoidance strategies eg. avoiding certain words or changing the word if they get stuck, not putting up their hand at school to answer a question.

What causes a stammer?

This is not an easy question to answer as there are many, many factors that can contribute the onset and persistence of a stammer. These include physiological factors, psychological factors, environmental factors and speech and language factors which all interact to create your child’s own individual and unique case. All these factors will be discussed at your first appointment with your Speech & Language Therapist. What we do know is that there is a strong genetic element to stammering and so, unlike what people have thought in the past, stammering is not a result of childhood trauma or bad parenting!

How do I know if my child will grow out of his stammer?

It’s not possible to predict with 100% accuracy which children will continue to stammer beyond early childhood. This is something that will need to be discussed and assessed with your Speech and Language Therapist. However, there are certain factors that may help to predict the likelihood of spontaneous recovery or persistence. Your therapist will look at things like family history, gender, length of time since onset, language skills, severity of the stammer and patterns of change.

When should I see a Speech & Language Therapist?

If you are at all worried about your child’s speech, it is always worth making a referral to see a specialist because if there is a problem, the earlier your child receives help and intervention, the more likely it is to make a difference. Speak to your local NHS Speech Therapy service or give us a call for a free, informal chat.

You can also find out more about stammering by going to:

  • The British Stammering Association: www.stammering.org.uk
  • The Michael Palin Centre: www.stammeringcentre.org

Sarah Carroll