What should parents do about stuttering?

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Dysfluency is more than just stuttering (repetition of the initial consonant), it also may include prolonging words, repeating words, having almost explosive speech, or injecting “nonce” words such as “well” or “uh” that do not add any meaning to your sentence. (AP Photo)

by Gary Emmett, M.D.

I saw a 3 ½ year old boy in my office this week, and his father was very concerned about stuttering.  The patient would get caught up in consonants with “hard” sounds such as ‘g’ or ‘k,’ and have trouble getting the words out. Doctors call anything that interferes with getting the sounds of speech out “dysfluency”. Otherwise he was a bright, friendly and articulate young man who was fun to have an office visit with. Should his father worry?

Only a little bit of worry is reasonable. About 5 percent of children have dysfluency (stuttering) between 2 and 5 years old. In over 90 percent of cases it just goes away by the fifth birthday with many getting better in just a few weeks. Dysfluency is more than just stuttering (repetition of the initial consonant), it also may include prolonging words, repeating words, having almost explosive speech, or injecting “nonce” words such as “well” or “uh” that do not add any meaning to your sentence.

Although, stuttering is not caused by anxiety, anxiety may make it worse. And stuttering certainly can cause anxiety to the stutterer and distress to those around him or her (although boys have over 50 percent more stuttering than girls). Stuttering that starts after the eighth birthday should be referred to speech therapy immediately because it rarely goes away on its own

What can you do about dysfluency? Initially try not to focus on the stuttering child or reprimand him, both only make it worse. Since most cases resolve in just a few months, only seek speech pathology if it last more than 6 months. This is especially important if there is a strong family history of stuttering since then it is less likely to go away. Audio feedback devices may help but there are no controlled, repeated studies that confirm this therapy and this can be very expensive

If you are interested in more detail, there is a National Institutes of Health web site that describes this problem in detail. 

Garry A. Emmett, M.D., F.A.A.P., has been a primary care pediatrician in South Philadelphia and Center City since 1979. 

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