Learning to talk, like learning to walk, doesn't always go smoothly.
It is normal for a child to repeat words and phrases, and to hesitate with "um"s and "er"s, when they are sorting out what to say next. Around 8% of children - that's one in every 12 children - will experience stammering, particularly between the ages of two and five.
Stammering, or stuttering, is when your child:
- stretches sounds in a word ("I want a ssstory.")
- repeats parts of words several times ("mu-mu-mu-mu-mummy.")
- gets stuck on the first sound of a word so no sound comes out for a few seconds ("...I got a teddy.")
- puts extra effort into saying specific sounds or words. You might notice tension in the face eg around the eyes, lips and jaw.
- holds their breath or take a big breath before speaking, so their breathing seems uneven
- uses other body movements to help get a word out - they might stamp their foot or move their head.
- loses eye-contact when getting stuck on a word
- starts to try to hide their stammer: they might pretend they’ve forgotten what they want to say, change a word they have started to say or go unusually quiet
These types of stammering behaviours will vary from child to child, can start gradually or very suddenly and may come and go over time. Around 75% of children will go on to speak fluently, either spontaneously or with the help of speech and language therapy.
How you and others respond is important and will shape your child’s perception of themselves. Be measured in your response - try not to show you’re worried even if that’s how you’re feeling.
If it feels right for you and your child, acknowledge the stammering in a relaxed, accepting and matter-of-fact way, just as you would for any other difficulty your child is experiencing. You might say something like ‘Learning to talk is quite a hard thing to do - lots of people get stuck on their words and that’s ok. You’re doing really well.'
When to Act
Ask for your child to be assessed by a Speech and Language Therapist if you are concerned or if your child is worried. The earlier you act the better, especially since there can be a bit of a wait before your child is seen.
A Speech and Language Therapist will be able to advise if your child needs therapy and can help you and your child make sense of what's happening. While lots of young children will grow out of stammering, it can still be hard for you and your child, and therapy can help.
It's not easy to tell whether your child is going through a temporary stage of stammering or whether the stammering might continue. Signs that suggest the stammering may continue and your child would benefit from some help include:
- Your child is aged between 2 and 3-and-a-half and the stammering continues for more than a few months and becomes more noticeable.
- A family member stammers or used to stammer.
- Your child has some speech sound difficulties.
- Your child is aged 3-and-a-half or over, and has just started stammering.
There’s lots you can do to help. Here are some suggestions which can help to reduce some of the pressure a child may experience when talking.
When talking with your child
Remain calm and relaxed and try to:
- slow down your own rate of speech, but don't tell your child to slow down or take a deep breath
- have one-on-one time (just five minutes every day) with your child, where they aren’t competing for attention with tasks or other family members
- ask one question at a time and give them plenty of time to answer
- use short, simple sentences.
When listening to your child
Resist the very strong temptation to show anxiety, impatience or to correct or fill-in their speech. Try instead to:
- keep natural eye-contact
- listen to what your child is saying, not how they say it
- pause before answering questions
- make sure everyone in the conversation gets a turn to speak
- acknowledge speech difficulties with reassurance and encouragement, if that feels right for you and your child.
If the stammering is causing you or your child distress, you can refer your child directly to a local therapist or ask your doctor or health visitor to do this for you. Speech and language therapy is available free of charge on the NHS, but push to see if you can find a therapist who specialises in stammering. You may have to wait several weeks before being seen, since most therapy departments have waiting lists. The visit will be relaxed and informal.
The therapist will first want to find out as much as possible about your child and assess your child’s speech and language skills through observation and play. Based on results from this first meeting and discussions with you, the therapist may decide to offer you advice and arrange another appointment in a few months’ time or offer some therapy.
Therapy for pre-school children can be divided into two approaches:
- Indirect therapy. This is where the therapist works with you in creating a more communication-friendly environment for your child. A common example of this type of approach is the Palin Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (pdf).
- Direct therapy. This is where the therapist teaches you how to work directly with your child. For short periods each day you’ll learn how to praise stammer-free speech and gently request that your child self-corrects stammered speech. This is typically known as the Lidcombe Programme (external link).
Finding a Therapist
To find out details of your nearest NHS Speech and Language Therapist, give our helpline a ring, free, on 0808 802 0002, weekdays 10am-12pm or 6pm-8pm or look online. For example if you live in Leeds, you could search for ‘Children speech and language therapy Leeds’.
Other sources of support
The British Stammering Association Closed Facebook group: moderated by BSA staff and volunteers, this provides a space for people to share experiences, ask for advice and talk openly about stammering. It's a 'closed' group, so any posts made in the group are only seen by group members. Parents of children who stammer often find it helpful to connect with adults who stammer
UK Network For Parents Of Children Who Stammer Facebook group: specifically for parents of children who stammer to support one another and share their experiences, thoughts and ideas. It's a closed group so only members can post and respond.
The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering: this specialist service provides assessment and therapy programmes for children, young people and adults who stammer. It has an informative website plus helpline in operation weekdays from 9am to 5pm (020 3316 8100). Consultation service also available to families of children who stammer throughout the UK.
Action for Stammering Children: informative website on all matters related to stammering with focus on children and young people.
Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice: place to go to if you're looking for a private speech and language therapist. Best to use the advanced search to find a specialist speech and language therapist.
Bilingualism in children is where the child has been spoken to, or speaks, two or more languages. This includes children who have been spoken to in two languages in the home, or where they have a home language that is different to the language spoken at school, in the nursery or creche.
Millions of children across the world speak more than one language and young children are easily able to learn at least two languages at the same time.
Being bilingual does not cause stammering, as lots of children learn two or more languages and don't stammer. We know that up to 8% of children stammer at some point - this will include bilingual children. Many young children learning to talk will stammer more when using longer, more complex sentences or learning new or longer words.
Managing early stammering in a bilingual child is the same as managing stammering in a child who speaks just one language. Also, do continue using two languages at home and let your child mix up the languages, which is natural for bilingual children.
If your child is showing signs of stammering and you are worried about it, it's best to seek advice from a Speech and Language Therapist. If your child needs therapy, this should be carried out in the language most suited to your child and family. Call our helpline on 0808 802 0002 (weekdays 10am-12pm or 6pm-8pm).