Q: Our daughter, who turned 3 last month, has been stuttering all words that begin with "W" since she was 32 months old. Also, if she says a sentence that begins with the words "I" or "you," she will repeat the word 5-6 times before she finishes the sentence. When this happens, it seems like she's thinking faster than she can talk. So far, she only stutters on "W" words. The rest of her speech is fine, although she still doesn't say a couple of letter sounds, such as "L."
Is this stutter temporary or will it be permanent? Will it get worse? Will she begin to stutter on all consonant sounds?
What causes this? We don't know of any stutterers in my family or in my husband's family.
Our daughter is a bright, healthy child with a sweet personality and seems to be in good psychological shape. I have been at home with her since she was born, she has lots of playmates in the neighborhood and is well-liked. I've always taken her to various activities, which she has enjoyed. She will be going to nursery school in the fall.
We've never said anything to her about the stuttering. Should we continue to ignore it? How concerned should we be about this problem? Should we consult a speech therapist?
A: It may or may not be a problem. Many children stutter between 2 1/2 and 5, and half of them outgrow it. Unfortunately, the other half don't. These are the children who need professional help. They also need their parents to be relaxed about their stuttering, because it can get worse if it's handled poorly.
Your daughter probably doesn't have a big problem if she stutters infrequently -- maybe once or twice a day -- or when she's under stress, but a true stutterer stumbles more often; fragments words; repeats the first syllable or word in a sentence or prolongs the first sound; or stutters over a conjunction.
Your daughter already shows some of these signs, which puts her at risk to one of mankind's most consistent, and embarrassing, afflictions.
About 1 percent of the population stutters, with a tendency to run in families and with boys affected four times more often than girls.
This problem seems to be genetic, but no one knows whether it's born in the brain, the ear muscles or the vocal cords. They do know, however, that it often is triggered or worsened by stress of even the simplest kind.
It may be exacerbated by something as obvious as a birthday or Christmas (or by moving to a new school or a new home or living with an illness or tension in the family). Or a child can feel stressed when she tries to say all the big, complicated words and ideas that collect in her head, and which she can't express as well or as fast as she thinks. Complicated, sophisticated language puts demands on a child, whose motor systems aren't ready for longer sentences.
An evaluation by a nationally certified, licensed speech-language pathologist will determine the extent of your daughter's problem and you should have it done now, so she can get treatment if she needs it. The longer it's postponed, the harder it will be to correct it. It's even hard to correct at 6.
If your daughter needs help, the pathologist will devise a program to meet her special needs and probably be able to treat her successfully in eight to 10 relatively inexpensive sessions.
You and your husband also will be involved in the therapy.
As you realize, corrections and punishments for stuttering are a bad idea. Instead you'll be taught to tell her sympathetically that "some people have trouble with words" or "You had a tough time with that one!"
The therapist also will help you see if you tense when she stumbles on a word and then transfer your own anxiety to her, or if you show small negative reactions. It's easy for a loving parent to hold her breath, wince or look away when her child stutters. This, coupled with a refusal to talk about the stuttering problem, could make a child think stuttering was quite bad and make her stutter more.
If this is the case, the pathologist will teach you to be patient, to keep looking your child in the eye when she stutters; to slow down when you talk to her and to stretch your vowels. Fast-talking parents -- and those who ask many questions -- lead children to talk fast too, and sometimes to stumble. This also can cause a child to stutter more.
You'll learn how to ease emotional or physical pressure on your child; to reduce your demands; and to exert less time pressure. What one child can take, another cannot.
Write the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 10801 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md. 20852, for a list of certified therapists near you and for its booklet on stuttering, or call (800) 638-TALK, or in Maryland, 897-8682. For more information about the whole stuttering phenomenon, read Tangled Tongue by Jock A. Carlisle (University of Toronto Press; $9.95). Information is a parent's best defense.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.