Stuttering (stammering) in children is a physical disorder and is not caused by anxiety. The Speech Therapy Department, Singapore General Hospital (SGH) explains.
While many will outgrow their stuttering, predicting who will recover naturally is difficult, say experts from the Speech Therapy Department at
Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the
With time, spontaneous recovery becomes less likely. Early treatment gives the best results.
“Stuttering can and should be treated in pre-school years,” says Ms Gan Hui Hui, Principal Speech Therapist at SGH. The disorder usually begins soon after the child begins to talk, before the child reaches the age of 5.
Tell-tale signs of stuttering
No one expects a child to have perfect speech rhythm from the beginning. But some stuttering tell-tale signs shouldn’t be ignored.
- Repetition of sounds or words, e.g. “A-a-a-a-apple” or “p-p-p-play”.
- Sound prolongation, e.g. “mmmmmummy”.
- Blockage, where the child gets stuck on a word that won’t come out.
In addition, parents may observe some facial or body movements associated to stutter, such as muscle tension, eye blinking, nostril flaring, rolling up of the eyes or head nodding. Some children may also avoid situations that require talking.
Stuttering, also called stammering, can be a bit tricky to assess in young children because it can be severe on certain days and just disappear on others. Nevertheless, stuttering cannot be considered a normal part of speech development.
“Stuttering is a physical disorder that affects coordination of the speech muscles”, says Ms Gan. It is not caused by anxiety, but can be exacerbated under stress. Approximately 1% of the population has a long-standing stuttering problem.
Is stuttering the parents’ fault?
A common myth is that stuttering is due to poor parenting style. That misconception may stem from the fact the disorder has a genetic link: about 60% of people who stutter have a family history of stuttering.
Parents actually play a crucial role in the treatment of stuttering in childhood.
In preschoolers, the Lidcombe Program is the preferred treatment. “It is simple and effective, as well as enjoyable for parents and children,” says Ms Robyn Foo, Principal Speech Therapist at SGH.
How is stuttering treated?
During weekly visits to the speech therapist, the parent learns how to carry out the treatment in practice sessions, using books, games and toys. Parents’ positive reinforcement of fluent speech plays a big part in the program.
The practice sessions are conducted daily until the stuttering disappears or reaches a very low level. The frequency of visits is then gradually tapered off. Children who receive the Lidcombe Program have a seven or eight times higher chance of not stuttering than children who do not receive the program.
As soon as parents suspect that their child is stuttering, they should consult a speech therapist, if only to put their mind at ease, suggests Ms Foo. If there is a family history of stuttering, or if the child is experiencing a lot of distress, early consultation is all the more indicated.