It is estimated that 70 million people worldwide stutter when they speak—not a momentary pause or repetition as they organize their thoughts, but a chronic, ongoing difficulty with the flow of their speech. That means repeating sounds, prolonging sounds, or unnatural, unneeded, and unintended pauses between syllables and words. Almost all children speak this way when they’re first learning, but about one percent of the time, it does not resolve itself. Stuttering can interfere with clear communication, and what’s more, the embarrassment it can cause may lead people to avoid talking, which in turn means avoiding social and professional situations that require speaking in front of others, which can seriously hold people who stutter back in their lives and careers.
The good news is that recent research shows preschoolers who stutter actually do better in school, and academically and socially. Although speech therapy is recommended for older children who stutter, it is not considered necessary for very young children, according to the study, and may even be harmful. Instead, the researchers recommend waiting a full year before starting the child in speech therapy in most cases. The exceptions are if the child exhibits distress at stuttering or shows unusual shyness or reluctance to talk as a result. It is also important for parents not to shame or stigmatize the child for stuttering, which itself may cause distress.
That can be difficult for parents who themselves remember stutter and feeling stigmatized for it. Indeed, stuttering has been found to have a genetic component, in that a predisposition to develop a stutter is passed down in the genes. Sometimes, particularly in people genetically prone to stuttering, stress can trigger it. In the past, left-handed children were frequently forced to use their right hands, and this often led to a stutter developing.
Regardless of the cause, stuttering is treatable, even if not wholly curable. Speech therapy can lead to noticeable improvement in fluency at any age. Often, it is a vicious cycle—stutterers experience stress when speaking, which exacerbates the stutter—and the most effective therapy has as its goal breaking that cycle. Support groups are particularly good for this. As fear of stuttering recedes, the stutter itself lessens.