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When stuttering is a problem — Good Parenting

Toddler talkingDear Dr. Debbie,

Our bright and friendly 2-year-old is starting to stutter. Is there something we should be doing or not doing to help her have more fluid speech? My uncle is a stutterer, and I see how it frustrates him and people he talks to.


Don’t miss last week’s column What to do about an angry 9-year-old — Good Parenting

Dear Mommy,

Yes, pauses and repetitions in speech can be frustrating to both speaker and listener. Communication works better without such obstacles.

It’s Normal

At age 2, your daughter is adding to her spoken vocabulary at a rate of two to three words each day. It must be exciting to be able to express herself and get her needs met through her burgeoning language skills so it is understandable that she may falter as the words come out.

Repeating segments of language is so common at this age that speech pathologists and early childhood educators call it “normal disfluency.” The Stuttering Foundation defines it this way: “Children with normal disfluencies between 18 months and 3 years will exhibit repetitions of sounds, syllables, and words, especially at the beginning of sentences. These occur usually about once in every 10 sentences.”

It’s Genetic

Since you mentioned that your uncle is a stutterer, it is possible that your daughter is one of the 50 percent of stutterers who come by it naturally. Worldwide, stuttering affects 1 percent of us.

Research on inherited differences among stutterers is looking at brain anatomy differences as well as brain chemistry. Anatomical and electrical transmission differences between stutters and non-stutterers show up in the Wernicke’s area of the brain, which is associated with language processing. One avenue of research is looking at a mutation in chromosome 12  which correlates with a deficiency in an enzyme responsible for more fluid speech.

The researchers hope to develop a medication that increases the efficiency of this enzyme. They estimate that 9 percent of stutterers have trouble getting their words out smoothly due to this inherited condition.

It’s Stress

The good news is that, if indeed your daughter’s brain is wired for non-fluent speech, the degree of severity is not inherited. The degree to which a stutterer’s impairment affects the quality of his or her speech depends on environmental factors which you can control.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association lists, “family dynamics, fast-paced lifestyle, stress and anxiety, and the child’s temperament” as contributing factors for potentially making things worse for a child who stutters. Alternatively, a calm environment can protect her from racing thoughts and heightened nervousness about how her language is coming out.

Family stress management tactics can include: regular exercise, yoga, frequent heart-to-heart conversations, fewer scheduled commitments and ample opportunities for creative expression through visual arts, dance, drama and music making.

Whether your daughter’s disfluency is only for the short term, or is a permanent part of her makeup, it is important to give her your full, calm attention when she speaks to you. The National Institutes of Health – National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders further recommends:

  • don’t interrupt her
  • don’t complete her sentences for her
  • speak to her in a clear and relaxed way
  • focus on the content of what she is trying to say
  • if she becomes aware of and concerned about her stuttering, reassure her
  • see a speech-language pathologist for speech exercises and techniques
  • seek out or start a support group for stutterers

Stuttering need not diminish the importance of what she has to say.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

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