Speech has a natural rhythm or flow. When that flow is interrupted, we think of it as stuttering, or dysfluency. Interruptions might take the form of repeated sounds, repeated words, stretched-out sounds or hesitations.
Such interruptions are common in the speech of young children. They have new experiences that they want to talk about. But they don’t quite have the language skills to do it smoothly. They may go through a period when there are many interruptions in their speech that sound like stuttering. This period of dysfluency is a normal stage of development, often occurring sometime between two and five years of age. Researchers tell us that up to 85% of young children go through this stage of “normal dysfluency.”
“Normal dysfluency” is characterized by:
- rhythmic repetitions, or “bumps” usually of the first word in a sentence: “I, I, I want a cookie.”
- fewer than 5-7 “bumps” per 100 words
- no more than 3 repetitions per “bump”
- no prolongations or “blocks” in speech lasting longer than ½ second
- no sign of struggle: no fear of speaking situations, avoidance of speaking situations, refusal to speak, increased facial or body tension or movement, saying “I can’t say it,” or “I don’t know.”
Suggestions for Parents
There are ways of reacting to a child’s normal dysfluency that might make speech easier:
- Pay attention when your child is talking to you. Look at your child’s face. Show interest.
- Don’t ask a child who’s crying, injured or obviously upset to talk about what happened. Soothe the child, and wait until things have calmed down before asking questions.
- Don’t put a child on exhibition. “Say your ABCs for Grandma,” or “Tell everybody about your new teacher” is asking for dysfluency. If you are concerned about your child developing good manners, remember that children learn by imitating. Use good manners yourself. This provides your child with a model to copy.
- Keep your own speech SLOW and deliberate when talking to your child. We all tend to unconsciously communicate the way that people around us communicate. If you’re speaking quickly, your child is likely to speed up in an effort to match you. Dysfluency will increase. If you slow down, your child will slow down without thinking about it, and speech will be more fluent.
- Don’t interrupt, or finish off your child’s sentences.
- It is natural to want to make suggestions to help your child. But be careful of comments like “Slow down,” “Think about what you want to say,” “Start over.” These comments tell your child that you’re not interested in what he or she has to say, only in whether it sounds smooth. This can lead your child to feel inadequate, uncertain and upset. It may even cause an increase in dysfluency. Instead, SLOW DOWN YOUR OWN RATE OF SPEECH. See # 4, above.
- Praise your child for non-speech talents. “Wow, I like how you kicked that soccer ball!” or “Thank you for being such a good helper with the dishes” lets your child know that smooth speech isn’t everything. We all have things we enjoy and are good at.
- Don’t let other people imitate your child’s speech or make jokes about it.
- Don’t discuss your child’s speech with other adults where he or she can overhear you. Dysfluency may increase if your child gets the feeling that there is cause for alarm.
- It often takes a while before a child’s brain “decides” whether the child will be right or left-handed. Don’t insist that your child use one hand or the other. It’s okay for a young child to use both.
- If your child shows frustration or says things like “I can’t say that word,” or “I can’t talk right,” it’s time for more direct action. Keep on using these suggestions, and contact a speech-language pathologist, who can give you ideas specific to your child.
- Have fun! Enjoy your time with your child. This is the greatest boost to self-image, self-confidence, and fluency for your child.