Parents May Miss Signs of Stuttering in Children, Study Shows

A dad talking to his little girl

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Key Takeaways

  • If your child currently stutters or has stuttered recently, it's important to seek professional input as soon as possible.
  • Telehealth is shown to be effective for stuttering therapy in children.

Stuttering can occur in approximately 5% of children and usually first appears between two and a half to three years of age. Some parents opt to wait and see if the stuttering resolves naturally; others opt for immediate treatment through speech-language therapy.

A study published in The International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology found that when parents believe their child's stuttering had naturally resolved without treatment, most cases had not actually resolved when assessed by an experienced speech-language pathologist.

Although some cases of childhood stuttering will resolve without treatment, it is difficult to know from the onset which children will recover naturally versus which children won’t.

For these reasons, speech-language pathologists recommend starting treatment as soon as possible if you notice your child is stuttering. This is particularly true if your child is due to start school within the next twelve months to allow time for treatment.

Children who continue to stutter into the school years are more likely to have persistent stuttering. This can lead to bullying, difficulty in school, and social anxiety disorders. 

What the Study Shows

The study reviewed a small sample of preschool-age children that had presented to a clinic with stuttering, but whose parents chose not to pursue active treatment. They were followed for an average of 19.4 months to assess the rate of natural recovery.

Parental interviews at the end of the study period indicated that some parents believed their child's stuttering to be naturally resolved within this time frame. When audio recordings of the children’s everyday conversation were reviewed by trained speech-language pathologists, only one child had in fact recovered without treatment. 

Study authors express that if a parent believes that their child has recovered from stuttering, an assessment should always take place by a trained professional as confirmation. 

Stuttering has several forms, some of which are not common knowledge to many parents. This lack of knowledge may contribute to parents believing that their child has recovered from stuttering when in fact they have not. 

 Different Types of Stuttering

Speech pathologist Lisa Brown, PhD, of Charles Sturt University, explains that stuttering in children can present in three different ways.

  • The repetition of a vowel, sound, or word is the most obvious and that which is often depicted in the media.
  • The second and third ways are known as blocking behaviors. These can be just as impairing but are not as widely recognized as signs of stuttering in the general community.

Blocking behaviors are known as fixed posture and can be seen either with or without sound.

During fixed posture without sound, the facial muscles freeze momentarily in anticipation of the beginning of the word, and an audible pause is noticed. Fixed posture with sound sees the child prolonging the first sound of the word, or middle vowel of the word, before continuing. 

Risks of Untreated Stuttering

Speech and language development occur predominantly in the toddler and preschool years. This developmental age is considered the optimal time for speech therapy because recovery rates are much higher when therapy is commenced before the age of six years old.

When stuttering continues in the school-age child, not only does treatment become more challenging, but the risk of bullying, academic challenges, and social anxiety disorders is greatly increased. 

Lisa Brown, PhD

If your child is stuttering, please see a speech pathologist as soon as you possibly can. Because, particularly for preschool-aged children, there are really effective treatments out there. A little bit of time invested in resolving and treating stuttering early far outweighs the potential life consequences of having stuttering as an adult.

— Lisa Brown, PhD

Therapy During COVID

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many speech-language clinics closed. This resulted in many parents not having easy access to treatment during the pandemic. This may cause concern in parents who feel they have missed that ideal preschool age to commence therapy.

Now that most businesses and services have opened back up, speech therapy is likely more accessible. There may also be a backlog of patients wanting appointments, but it's worth getting an appointment.

Professor Mark Onslow, study author and director of the Australian Stuttering Research Centre, reassures parents that it is still possible for children in the early school years to achieve good results from therapy.

Mark Onslow, PhD

If a child is 6 to 8 years of age, there is still a good chance of a positive treatment response with the simple treatments that are effective with younger children.

— Mark Onslow, PhD

Additionally, stuttering therapy has been shown in research to be just as effective when delivered via telehealth. Initially, telehealth was introduced due to remote communities not having access to a stuttering specialist. Now parents can utilize therapy via telehealth services with the reassurance that they have already proven effective.

Increasing numbers of clinics and speech-language therapists in the US are training up in telehealth and providing access to treatments virtually. But the advantage of telehealth is that you could technically contact a specialist from anywhere in the world.

How Is Stuttering Treated?

Treatment will depend on the age of your child and your individual speech-language pathologist. However, of all the treatments available, the Lidcombe Program is arguably the most evidence-based treatment program for stuttering in preschool-aged children.

Parents are heavily involved in this treatment and most of the therapy is done at home by the parents. Weekly consultations with a speech-language pathologist form part of the initial program, with less frequent consults as the child progresses.

Parents are also taught to score their child’s stuttering with a specially designed tool. These scores form part of the therapist’s assessment. When the child’s stuttering is consistently scoring zero, a child moves into the maintenance phase of treatment to prevent the return of stuttering. This maintenance phase lasts for approximately 12 months.

Despite its strong evidence for success, there are some children who won’t respond to this treatment. Speech-language pathologists are trained with alternative methods that may assist your child and should adapt therapy to suit your individual family needs. 

What This Means For You

Older children and adults who stutter can still benefit from speech therapy. When treating stuttering at an older age, the stutter is less likely to disappear completely, but children and adolescents are taught techniques to lessen its impact in day-to-day life.

President Biden is proof that despite the struggle of a childhood stutter, with support from parents, teachers, and caregivers children can grow into their full potential and succeed in life.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Prevalence. Stuttering Foundation.

  2. Carey B, Onslow M, O'Brian S. Natural recovery from stuttering for a clinical cohort of pre-school children who received no treatmentInt J Speech Lang Pathol. 2021;23(1):48-56. doi:10.1080/17549507.2020.1746399

  3. Tohidast SA, Mansuri B, Bagheri R, Azimi H. Provision of speech-language pathology services for the treatment of speech and language disorders in children during the COVID-19 pandemic: Problems, concerns, and solutions. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2020;138:110262. doi:10.1016/j.ijporl.2020.110262

  4. Onslow M. Stuttering and its treatment: Eleven lectures.

Additional Reading