BSA leaflets for parents of under 5's

Does your young child stammer? (BSA leaflet)

This leaflet was compiled by a panel of specialist speech and language therapists. Please note that 'Stammer' and 'Stutter' mean the same.

This information is for parents who are concerned about the fluency of their child's speech or who feel he* is finding it difficult to talk. It explains where you can get advice and how you can help your child be more fluent when he talks. (*This text uses 'he' for the sake of clarity and because boys are more commonly affected than girls.)

Talking and fluency

Learning to talk, like learning to walk, is never completely smooth and does not happen straight away. Young children often stop, pause, start again and stumble over words when they are learning to talk.

Between the ages of two and five years, it is normal for a child to repeat words and phrases, and hesitate with "um"s and "er"s, when he is sorting out what to say next.

However, about five in every hundred children stammer for a time when they are learning to talk. Many find it easier to talk fluently as they get older. Others continue to find talking difficult and often get stuck.

if you're worried, phone the BSA helpline

If you are concerned about you child's speech you should arrange to see a speech and language therapist who can show you how to help your child.

What is stammering speech?

You may notice your child

  • is putting extra effort into saying his words
  • has tense and jerky speech
  • cannot seem to get started, no sound comes out for several seconds ("... I got a teddy")
  • is stretching sounds in a word ("I want a ssstory")
  • is repeating parts of words several times ("mu-mu-mu-mu-mummy")
  • stops what he is saying half way through his sentence.

These examples vary from child to child - you may hear some or all of these when your child talks.

stammering can come and go - so don't put off getting help

What is known about stammering?

It is not known exactly why a child stammers; it is likely that a combination of factors is involved. There is no evidence that parents cause stammering. It is about four times more common in boys than in girls. Stammering often runs in families and occurs worldwide in all cultures and social groups.

How is fluency affected?

Whatever the age of your child, there are things he is able to do easily and some things which he finds difficult. Your child's fluency may change according to

  • the situation (eg: if it is noisy or quiet, rushed or relaxed, at home or in the nursery)
  • whether your child is talking to friends, parents or strangers
  • what he wants to say (eg: if it is complicated or easy, if the words are new or familiar)
  • how he is feeling (unwell, tired, anxious, excited or confident).

Stammering may come and go; you may notice his speech is fluent for several days, weeks or months at a time, then he stumbles and speaking becomes difficult again.

get help early - contact speech and language therapy now

How can my child be helped?

Children can be helped a great deal by a speech and language therapist. If you have any concerns about your child's speech, it is important to get advice as soon as possible.

Therapists are based in local health centres and hospitals. You can refer your child directly to your local therapist, or you can ask your family doctor or health visitor to do this for you. Speech and language therapy is available on the NHS. You may have to wait several weeks before being seen, since most therapy departments have waiting lists. The visit will be relaxed and informal.

Qualified speech and language therapist are also available privately for assessment and treatment.

What will the therapist want to know?

The speech and language therapist will ask you for information so she can understand how your child communicates.

She will involve you in the assessment, and ask you questions about your child's speech (for example, when he is fluent and when not so fluent) and about his general health and development.

The therapist will also want to speak to your child and listen to him talking and may look at other aspects of your child's communication development (eg: the way he talks and plays with others, his understanding and development of language, how he says his words and what his speech sounds like when he stammers).

After the assessment there will be time for you and your therapist to discuss your child's speech and any concerns you have. She will suggest ways in which you can help your child at home. Further appointments may be needed.

What can I do to help?

While you are waiting for your child to see a speech and language therapist, here are some ways you can help him with his talking. You may find some of them easy, others will need practice.

If you child spends a lot of time with other family members (eg: a grandparent or aunt) or somebody else (eg: a nursery teacher or childminder) it will be helpful to ask us for a copy of our leaflet 'Does your young child stammer?' - which has all the information you see here - and show it to them.

Remember: there is no evidence that parents cause stammering. Don't blame yourself.

1. Set aside a few minutes at a regular time each day when you can give your full attention to your child in a calm relaxed atmosphere.

Spend time together - follow his lead by playing with what he wants to play with and talking about what he wants to talk about. During this time, encourage him by praising him for what he is good at (eg: "You are good at puzzles" or "That was a nice thing to do"). Make things relaxed rather then rushed.

Once you have had some special times with your child, choose one of the other points mentioned and try it out during this time.

2. Slowing down your own speech when you talk to your child will make it easier for him to follow what you are saying and help him feel less rushed. This can be more helpful then telling a child to slow down, start again or take a deep breath.

3. It may help to pause for one second before you answer him or ask a question. This slow, less hurried way of speaking gives your child time before answering.

4. Show your child you are interested in what he says, not how he says it. Look at him when he talks, then he knows you are listening and won't rush his speech.

If you are busy doing something and cannot stop, tell your child that, although you are busy, you are still listening, or explain why you cannot stop, but give him your full attention later.

5. Use the same sort of sentences your child does - keep them short and simple.

Do not expect changes in your child's speech straight away, but practising these suggestions can help your child to talk more easily.

Where can I get further help?

The British Stammering Association (BSA) can tell you how to contact your local speech and language therapy service in the UK. BSA has a confidential telephone helpline for parents which you can call for advice and information (0845 603 2001) and you can read more about stammering in young children in the following books:

'Stammering - Advice for All Ages' - Renée Byrne and Louise Wright (Sheldon Press, July 2008)

'Stuttering and Your Child: Questions and Answers', £2.95 (inc. UK p&p).

March 2008