Getting stuck for words, stammering in pre-school children

We all get stuck on our words from time to time. We may hesitate, say, “Em” or “well”, or repeat or rephrase what we are saying.  These ‘bumps’ in our speech are quite normal. It is relatively common for children between the ages of 2 and 5 years to go through a phase of what’s called ‘normal nonfluency’. What is normal nonfluency and is it related to stuttering? Read on and I’ll explain. I’ve also included some tips for helping the child who is experiencing bumps in their speech.

Children who are going through a phase of normal nonfluency experience difficulties with getting words out fluently. They may do different things including repeating words, such as “Will will you play with me?”  or repeating phrases, such as “I want I want …to go to the shop.”  They may hesitate in the middle of a sentence, or use words like ‘um’. Sometimes they may change what they are saying, such as “I’m going to, no I want to play with…”.  Children with normal nonfluency are usually not aware of these ‘bumps’ in their speech and it doesn’t appear to bother them.

Normal nonfluency often occurs at a time when the child is making strides in other areas. For example, the child may have recently started to use longer and more complex sentences, or may have started to use new and difficult to say words, such as, ‘crocodile’. Perhaps they may have recently become more advanced at figuring things out, and have a logical explanation for why exactly they should be able to pull all of their clothes out of the wardrobe! When children make gains in one area, it’s a bit like juggling, they may not be able to keep all the other balls in the air. Speech is often the ball that gets dropped, and so ‘bumpy speech’ occurs.

While many children ‘grow out’ of normal nonfluency, some start to struggle with speaking. This ‘bumpy speech’ starts to bother them, so they try to stop it from happening. It’s like when a child gets a toy (or your favourite magazine) stuck under a door, they pull and pull to try and get it out, instead of moving around the door so that they can retrieve the toy (or your now crumpled magazine) easily. This is what starts to happen with their speech, as they start to push the words out, and become frustrated when it becomes hard to speak. Unfortunately, this results in their speech becoming more ‘bumpy’ and makes them more vulnerable to go on to develop a stutter or stammer (both words mean the same thing).

While it is difficult to predict which children with normal nonfluency will go on to develop a stutter, some warning signs include:

  • Increased frequency of ‘bumpy speech’, such as repeating words.
  • Repeating the first sound or syllable in a word, e.g. w-w-w-window, win-win-win-window
  • Prolonging sounds, e.g. ssssssssssss…un
  • Adding an ‘uh’ sound, e.g. buh-buh-baby
  • Increased loudness and pitch
  • Tremors, where the lip or tongue quivers while saying a ‘bumpy word’
  • Avoidance,  through avoiding words or avoiding speaking in certain situations
  • Fear, becoming afraid of speaking, or trying to stop the stuttering from happening

Even if you don’t see any of these signs, if your child is trying to stop the ‘bumps’ in his speech (most children who stutter are boys)or if it is starting to bother him, then he is vulnerable to developing a stutter.

It can be upsetting to hear your once fluent child struggling with speaking, particularly if this has started suddenly.  As a parent, how you respond is important, as what you do or say when your child is stuttering can make the situation better or worse. So, if you are concerned, it’s really important to get advice from a speech and language therapist.  At this early stage, it is often possible to steer the child down the path of becoming fluent again and steer them away from the path of stuttering.

So, if you are concerned that your child is stuttering or his having some difficulty getting words out, do contact a speech and language therapist. Speech and language therapists can be accessed publicly through contacting your local H.S.E. office, or privately through accessing the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Private Practice (IASLTPP) through the website, http://www.iasltpp.com or via the golden pages.

So, here are 10 tips for helping your child who stutters or who is experiencing ‘bumpy speech’.

  1. Listen to what your child is saying and not how he is saying it.
  2. Keep looking at your child when he talks. Try not to look away.
  3. Try to give your child your full attention when he is talking to you. If you are busy, ask him to wait.
  4. Don’t finish off sentences for your child.
  5. Try to slow down your own speech. Try to allow pauses when speaking. This slows down the pace at which you talk.
  6. Don’t ask your child to slow down. This can be frustrating for your child, and is quite hard to do.
  7. Don’t ask your child to stop and take a deep breath. This may work in the short-term, but it is not an effective strategy.
  8. If your child is showing signs of frustration, do acknowledge this. You can say, “That word was a bit hard to say.” Talking about stuttering will not make it worse.
  9. Set aside a special talking time with your child. During this time, you focus on what your child is interested in, and on listening to your child. Try to minimise other distractions such as T.V., radio, phones, other people.
  10. Talk to someone about how you feel about your child’s speech. If you feel upset or anxious about it, your child will pick up on this.

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