Why Toddler Stuttering Might Be a Good Thing

toddler stutteringBy Lisa Armstrong

It’s one of those milestones all new parents wait for—their child’s first words. But for many toddlers, those first words are followed by something parents might find alarming: stuttering.

While toddler stuttering is often a cause of concern for parents, a new Australian study shows that stutterers are no less socially or emotionally developed than their non-stuttering peers, and do not suffer any disadvantages in preschool. In fact, stutterers can actually have above average language and vocabulary skills. According to the study, which followed 1619 children in Melbourne, Australia from infanthood until the age of 4, stuttering children scored 5.5 points higher than their non-stuttering peers on language tests and 2.6 points higher on a test of non-verbal intelligence, where 100 is an average score.

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It’s possible that toddler stuttering somehow improves language skills, or that stuttering could result from very fast language development among some children.

“Children with more well-developed vocabularies may stutter earlier,” says the study’s lead author, Professor Sheena Reilly, from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. “It is good news for the children and parents to know that children who stutter have excellent language skills.”

Causes of toddler stuttering

Stuttering is a speech disorder involving disruptions, or “disfluencies,” in a person’s speech. Previous studies put the rate of stuttering at about 5 percent of children, but, according to the Australian study, the frequency of stuttering in preschoolers is much higher, as researchers found that 11 percent of children go through a period of stuttering before their fourth birthday.

Reilly says that it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly causes toddler stuttering. Her study looked at a number of factors that are supposed to be associated with stuttering, including being male, birth weight and birth order, and the child’s communication skills and expressive vocabulary development.

“Because stuttering has long been linked to personality traits such as shyness, we also explored temperament,” says Reilly. “We explored family factors such as having a family history of stuttering and/or speech and language problems, social economic disadvantage, maternal education level and maternal mental health problems. We have learned that [stuttering] is not related to children’s temperament or family environment.”

Dealing with toddler stuttering

So what should you do if your little one stutters? While you might be tempted to seek immediate treatment, and experts often suggest early intervention, Reilly says that parents should wait a year after children start stuttering before seeking treatment, unless the child becomes distressed or is reluctant to communicate.

Reilly says her findings show that adopting this “watch and wait” approach doesn’t affect children’s language ability or social and emotional development, and that waiting a year after onset might actually improve a child’s responsiveness to the program.

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