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Happily Chatty Toddlers Who Start to Stutter

What happens when kids stutter, and 12 things you can do about it.

Sean Choe via Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Sean Choe via Flickr Creative Commons

It’s terribly worrying, but not at all uncommon, for children who start talking early to experience a period of stuttering sometime between 18 months and 4 years of age. It can start all at once, and usually ends just as quickly a few days, weeks, or months later.

What’s Happening?

With some toddlers, the stuttering (also called stammering) is mild—a few f-f-f-false starts every few sentences. With others, it’s more severe, happening in most sentences, preventing effective communication, and leading to the child’s speaking less frequently.

Some little ones show signs of anxiety about the stuttering, blinking their eyes rapidly, raising the pitch of the voice, or looking worried. Being tired, excited, worried, angry, or upset usually makes stuttering worse.

For little ones with very active brains, their thoughts and ideas can be racing ahead of their physical ability to make the words. Or as one mom wrote, “Intelligent kids’ brains work better than their mouths.”

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, stuttering occurs in five to ten percent of all children, most of whom outgrow it. It can occur when a toddler’s desire to speak exceeds their speech and language abilities. When this happens, toddlers can begin to stutter until their spoken language skills have caught up.

And as speech-language pathologist Patricia McAleer-Hamaguchi wrote:

“When your child is in the midst of a great jump in his language skills, it's natural he should have difficulty putting his sentences together in a fluent way. His brain is like a computer, desperately trying to pull up the right words in the right order. While the computer is searching, his mouth may go into a pause (translated: repeat) mode.”

When a child who’s previously been a good talker begins to stutter, many parents blame themselves or worry about other aspects of the child’s life. If that’s you, stop looking for someone or something to blame. Stuttering in toddlers is very rarely caused by environmental stressors. Instead, it is usually a transient phase in the development of language skills. The child who was previously a great talker will most probably become that again before too long.

What You Can Do if Your Toddler Stutters

  1. Wait and see. Because many children go through a stuttering phase while learning to talk, most experts recommend waiting until your child is three before taking action.
  2. Be patient and listen. When your child stumbles in trying to talk, maintain normal eye contact and wait calmly for them to finish. Don't provide words or finish their sentences. If you’re not available to talk, let them know when you’ll have time, and then follow through.
  3. Avoid giving advice. Don't suggest your child take a deep breath, slow down, or start the statement over. You can feed the problem by increasing your toddler’s self-consciousness.
  4. Channel Mr Rogers. Talk to your child in soft, slow, accepting, and relaxed tones. If you speak quickly, your child may rush to keep up with you.
  5. Smile your encouragement. Keep a pleasant, relaxed expression on your face when your child is talking.
  6. Repeat the sentence. Once your child has finished, repeat the sentence fluently so they know you understand, and so they can hear it fluently said.
  7. Make time for full individual attention. Set aside time each day for pleasant, stress-free conversation with just this child.
  8. Ask one question at a time. Keep your communication short, simple, and positive.
  9. Slow down the pace of your toddler’s life. Ensure as calm and unhurried an atmosphere as possible.
  10. Provide non-talking activities. When the stuttering is particularly noticeable, look for something your toddler can do that doesn’t require conversation. This can be drawing, reading, dancing, outdoor play, or other nonverbal play activities.
  11. Acknowledge the problem supportively, with kindness. From time to time, say something like, “You have so many important things to tell me that it can be hard for you to say them all!”, or “Sometimes talking is difficult for everybody,” or “I love how you keep working to tell me, even when it’s hard,” or “Your big brother (or mother, or whoever) was a bumpy talker when he was little, and now look at him!”
  12. Review familiar stories, nursery rhymes, and songs. Encourage your child to tell you stories they know well. Sing simple familiar songs and rhymes with them. These usually come more fluently than unstructured speech.

These strategies will help your child thrive and grow stronger through what could otherwise be a stressful period. In time, the stuttering problem will probably disappear, but if your child is really struggling and the stuttering hasn't improved within three to six months or by the age of three, speak to your doctor about a referral to a speech therapist.