Parents - what is stammering?

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Stammering occurs in all parts of the world, across all cultures, religions and socio-economic groups. It is very complicated and has mystified researchers, academics, and those who stammer, throughout history.
Even the name creates confusion; it may be referred to as stammering, stuttering or dysfluency.

Individuality and variability

Stammering can take many different forms and each person who has a stammer shows slightly different features.
One common feature is its unpredictability and variability. This can make it confusing for the person who stammers and their family. Many parents describe how phases of stammering are followed by a fluent period which may last for weeks. Naturally, this adds to the dilemma of when or whether to ask for help.
Often parents report that there is no obvious pattern, for example, sometimes it's more noticeable when the child is tired, but not always, sometimes it's better in the holidays, but not consistently. There are no hard and fast rules.

Characteristics of stammering

Although the quantity and type of the stammering differs for each individual, the following features are more usual. Remember that even if your child is showing a few of these characteristics in their speech this does not necessarily mean that your child has developed a stammer.
Typically many young children repeat words and syllables:
  • Repetition of whole words, e.g. "and, and, and, then I left"
  • Repetition of single sounds or syllables, e.g. "c-c-come h-h-here mu-mu-mummy"
  • Prolonging of sounds, e.g. "sssssssometimes I go out"
  • Blocking of sounds, where the mouth is in position, but no sound comes out
  • Muscle tension - around the eyes, nose, lips, neck, or in arms, legs, chest etc. Extra body movements may occur as the child attempts to 'push' the word out: stamping a foot, shifting body position or finger tapping
  • Avoiding eye contact during a moment of stammering
  • Breathing may be disrupted, for example, the child may hold his breath while speaking or take an exaggerated breath before speaking. Generally the flow of speech is unevenly disrupted and this may cause distress to the speaker and the listener

Sometimes the child adopts strategies to try and minimise or hide the stammer, for example:
  • Avoiding or changing words - the child may say "I've forgotten what I was going to say", or may switch to another word when he begins to stammer, e.g. "I played with my br- br- br... my sister on Saturday"
  • Avoiding certain situations - for instance, speaking in assembly or asking questions in class
  • Some children become so adept at hiding their stammer in this manner that they may appear fluent, or just become very quiet
Last updated19 Jun 2019
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