Stuttering

Last Updated February 2021 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

What is stuttering?

Stuttering is a condition that affects a person’s ability to speak smoothly. It can cause them to repeat words, parts of sentences, or sounds. Someone who stutters might prolong the pronunciation of a single word or sound. They may tense up their facial muscles as they struggle to speak.

Most cases of stuttering begin when children are between 2 and 6 years old, when they are developing their vocabulary. Boys are more likely to stutter than girls. Stuttering usually stops by the time children enter school, but adults can stutter, too. However, fewer than 1% of cases are found in adults.

Symptoms of stuttering

Typically, the first signs of stuttering appear when a child is 18-24 months old. This is when they start putting sentences together and their vocabulary really starts to expand. It’s normal for children to have some stuttering at this stage.

Your child may stutter for a few weeks or several months. The stuttering may come and go. For most children, stuttering stops by the time they’re 5 years old. But for some, the stuttering is frequent. It might continue to get worse. It might also be accompanied by facial or body movements. For these children, treatment may be necessary.

Stuttering is apparent in a person’s speech flow. For example, when saying the word, “where,” it might sound like, “W… w… w… where.” Words starting with the letters “k,” “g,” and “t” may be difficult starting sounds for people who stutter.

Another sign of a stutter is the prolonged pronunciation of a word, such as, “My graaanndma gave me a cookie.” Repeating entire phrases or sentences is another sign of stuttering. For example, you might hear the person start off smooth and then repeat the last few words: “I can play with you, but I have to check … I have to check … I have to check with my parents first.”

You also may notice physical signs that are characteristic of stuttering. These include the head and eyes rolling backward as the person struggles to get his or her words out. They also include rapid eye blinking, or a tightening of the muscles around the mouth.

Stuttering may increase during certain social situations. For example, speaking in front of a group or talking on the phone may make it worse. Some activities can make it better. These include singing, reading, or speaking in unison with other people.

What causes stuttering?

Research is still being done to identify the cause of stuttering. It can occur from the natural process of organizing your thoughts and words. A combination of factors can also cause people to stutter, including:

  • A family history of stuttering
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Problems with speech motor control
  • Brain injuries or other severe medical conditions
  • Emotional and mental health problems

How is stuttering diagnosed?

Parents, teachers, and family members are often the first to notice a child is stuttering. Tell your doctor if your child stutters, even at the early age of 2 years old. Your doctor may refer you to early intervention services provided by your local community. They may also refer you to a speech-language pathologist. This is a health professional who specializes in voice, speech, and language disorders.

The speech-language pathologist will consider several factors when diagnosing your child. They will ask you about your child’s history, their stuttering behaviors, and the impact stuttering has on their life. They will also try to determine if your child is likely to outgrow their stuttering. To do this, they will evaluate family history, how long the stuttering has lasted, and if your child has any other speech or language problems.

Can stuttering be prevented or avoided?

No one knows why stuttering occurs, so there is no way to prevent or avoid it. Once you suspect or notice that stuttering may be a problem for your child, don’t ignore it. Early intervention can help.

Stuttering treatment

Talk to your doctor if your child stutters, even if they’re young. Early treatment can help prevent stuttering from becoming a lifelong problem. Treatment will depend on the severity and frequency of your child’s stuttering. Your doctor may refer your child to a speech therapist for treatment. You’ll likely have many appointments with the speech therapist. They will also give you speech exercises to do at home. It’s important to follow your speech therapist’s treatment plan.

Treatment also involves teaching parents ways to support their child. You may be encouraged to:

  • Provide a relaxed environment at home.
  • Give your child many opportunities to speak.
  • Speak in a slow and relaxed manner, so your child doesn’t feel pressure to talk quickly.
  • Listen when your child speaks. Don’t interrupt or finish their sentences. Wait for them to say what they want to say.
  • Focus on the content of what your child is saying, not on how it’s being delivered.

Don’t discipline your child for stuttering. Be patient. Not being patient when your child is speaking only makes the stuttering worse. It embarrasses your child more.

Living with stuttering

There are many ways you can help your child:

  • Build your child’s confidence by remaining patient.
  • Stay positive and make eye contact with your child while they’re talking.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to practice speaking exercises, such as family dinners, car rides, and family time.
  • Avoid certain situations you know will make the stuttering worse.
  • Encourage conversation in less stressful situations to make your child relaxed.

Questions for your doctor

  • What if my child never stops stuttering? How will that affect their adult life?
  • Is there anything I can do at home to help my child?
  • How often will we need to see a speech therapist?
  • Is it true that singing can sometimes help a person overcome stuttering?