In the first five years of their lives, children are faced with a monumental job. Not only will they have to learn thousands of new words at breakneck speed, but they also will have to figure out how to string those words together into complete sentences.
"Children are learning the most complex task they will learn in their life—speech and language," explains Peter R. Ramig, PhD, professor of Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and co-author of The Child and Adolescent Stuttering Treatment and Activity Resource Guide. "Speaking is complex from a motor perspective and from a cognitive perspective. Because of the complexity, children make a lot of mistakes when they talk."
Is It a Stutter?
Nearly all children stumble over a few words now and then as they are learning to communicate, but others have frequent trouble getting their words right. They may repeat the first letter of certain words ("m-m-m-mommy"), get caught up on a beginning word sound ("rrrrrrr-rabbit"), or form words with their mouths that they are unable to articulate out loud. These breaks in speech are called "disfluencies," and when disfluencies occur regularly, they are known as stuttering. Speech-language pathologists aren't sure what triggers stuttering, but research suggests that it stems from a disconnect between the brain and the muscles in the face, neck, and mouth that form speech. They also know that stuttering tends to run in families.
When a child can't say what he wants to say, he may feel frustrated or embarrassed. This emotional response causes the muscles of his jaw to tense, only exacerbating the problem. The child may be afraid to raise his hand in school, or might even substitute a wrong answer for a right one for fear that he may stutter over the correct answer. "A lot of people think that people who stutter aren't as smart as other people. It's not that we can't retrieve the word—the word is there—we just can't articulate it," says Dr. Ramig, who knows firsthand what a toll stuttering can take on a child's emotions because he also stutters.
More than three million Americans stutter. Most of them begin as children, between the ages of two and six years. The good news is that most children eventually grow out of their problem, but anywhere from 30 to 40 percent will continue to stutter into adulthood if they are not treated. Because it's impossible to know whether or not your child's stuttering will persist, it's a good idea to seek professional help, especially if your child is really struggling with her speech and/or the problem has persisted for several months. "If there's any doubt, it's always a good idea to see a speech-language pathologist, who can differentiate between developmental disfluency and persistent stuttering," advises Diane Paul, PhD, Director of Clinical Issues in Speech-Language Pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). "The earlier treatment takes place, the more effective it will be."