It is often frightening for parents when they hear their child stumbling over their words and they often think that their child is stuttering.
Many people become non-fluent when they are tired, excited or nervous, or perhaps do not have the knowledge to express what they need to.
The same applies to young children who are still learning new vocabulary, grammar and the ability to express their thoughts and ideas effectively. It could be described as the ‘brain working faster than the mouth.’
Non-fluency or Disfluency is anything that impedes the forward movement of speech. So, when you stop in mid-sentence and say “Um” or “Er” that is disfluency. Or, if you say, “I want, um, I want that”, that is disfluency.
Stuttering differs from disfluency in both quantity and quality.
Between the ages of 2 to approximately 5 years, many children go through a period of normal non fluency.
In young children, typical non-fluent speech often occurs in spates and may even increase and decrease throughout the day.
The following are characteristics of normal nonfluencies (Guitar 1998):
- No more than ten disfluencies per one hundred words.
- Most repetitions are only one or two repetitions in length.
- Repetitions are easy, loose and relaxed with no apparent sign of tension or struggle.
- The most common normal disfluencies are interjections (um, uh), revisions and whole word repetitions. As children mature past three, they will show a decline in part-word (sound or syllable) repetitions (e.g. ru-ru-run)
- When the disfluencies occur, the child’s body is in motion and they will appear relaxed. Most of the time they will appear as if they are unaware of the disfluencies and will continue talking without interruptions.
Normal non fluency should improve spontaneously after approximately 6 months. However though they may continue to show evidence disfluencies for up to 2 years. The important thing to remember is that they should be getting better over time, not worse.
What to do when your child is non-fluent:
1. Try not to draw negative attention to the speech difficulties. Instead:
- Listen patiently until the child is finished speaking, while maintaining consistent, appropriate eye contact.
- Respond the same way to disfluent speech as you would to fluent speech.
- Repeat back to the child what they said in a slow, relaxed manner. This will tell the child you were listening to what was said rather than how it was said.
2. Use the “whisper effect”
- When someone uses slower, softer more relaxed speech, the response is often to slow down your own speech so that it is easy and relaxed. Try to use slower, more relaxed speech (easy speech) whenever you are communicating to your child.
3. Speak to your child in short, simple sentences
Use age appropriate vocabulary. Disfluencies will increase with longer, more complex utterances. Children frequently attempt to match adult language models.
4. Reduce time pressure.
Give your child adequate time to respond. Try to avoid rushing or asking him to hurry. If you don’t have time to listen with your full attention, then tell him you will answer or listen when you have finished talking on the telephone. Don’t use time frames, because children do not understand how long 5 minutes is.
Suggestions such as “slow down”, “think about what you are saying”, “start over”, and “take a deep breath” are not helpful and will only serve to frustrate your child during moments of speech difficulty.
5. Avoid talking about the “stuttering” in his presence.
In addition, do not label the disfluencies as “stuttering”.
6. Be encouraging if your child gets upset about his speech.
Acknowledge the difficulty in the same way that you would deal with any other difficulty your child was experiencing. You could say something like “Don’t worry, talking can be tricky sometimes when you’re still learning.”
7. Use, yes-no questions or short answers questions whenever possible.
Give your child time to answer before bombarding with the next question.
Seek advice from a speech therapist if:
- Your child shows regular signs of struggle and tension in his efforts to get a word out
- If you notice your child trying to avoid saying certain words or substituting or inserting irrelevant or meaningless words/noises in his effort to say a word
- Any signs of tremor in the muscles around the mouth when your child is trying to get a word out
- A rise in pitch or loudness in a sound when trying to get a word out