Preschoolers who stutter typically do not suffer emotional or social problems because of it, and even tend to have stronger language skills than their peers, a new study suggests.
Researchers said the findings offer reassurance to parents, but also stressed that the study looked at averages. So, some young children who stutter may have emotional difficulties, such as being shy or withdrawn.
"Speech pathologists who treat young children who stutter certainly see evidence of those behaviours," said lead researcher Sheena Reilly, of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Victoria, Australia.
But when you look at young kids in the wider community, such negative effects may not be the "norm" at least in the short term, Reilly's team reports online on 26 August and in the September print issue of Pediatrics.
The study included 1 619 children from Melbourne, Australia, who were followed, starting in infancy. By age 4 years, 11% had developed stuttering. Based on standard questionnaires given to the parents, those children were faring as well as their peers when it came to emotional and social development.
What's more, they had higher average scores on measures of vocabulary and other language skills.
That finding is not surprising, according to a speech-language pathologist who was not involved in the study.
There is evidence that children with stuttering may be "linguistically precocious", said Heather Grossman, clinical director of the American Institute for Stuttering in New York.
The theory is that for some preschoolers, the brain's language capacity is more developed than the "motor system" that allows them to physically speak. "In other words, the motor system cannot keep up with the cognitive system," Grossman said. And that may lead to stuttering.
Stuttering is most common in children aged 2 to 5, and it usually clears up; only 1% or less of adults continue to stutter, according to the US National Institutes of Health.
The question is, which kids need speech therapy to help them get past the issue?
"Many cases of stuttering onset are mild, and we recommend 'watchful waiting' for a year as a reasonable approach," Reilly said.
However, it's likely to take more than a year, based on her team's findings. Of the 142 preschoolers who developed stuttering, only 6% saw it go away within a year.
Reilly said researchers still need to figure out how long stuttering "recovery" typically takes.
There are certain factors that experts have found to be important: girls, for instance, are more likely than boys to outgrow it on their own, Grossman said. Once kids get to the ages of 6 or 7, the number of boys who stutter is a few times higher than the number of girls – for reasons that are unclear.
Grossman said she wouldn't want parents to interpret the new findings as an indicator that stuttering is no problem for kids.
"There are some children who even at this young age do have these [emotional or social] issues," she said. And, if the stuttering does not improve, they could develop more problems when they are older and in school.
Reilly agreed that is a possibility. "This is something we now want to investigate as we follow the children up into the school years," she said.
And both she and Grossman said parents shouldn't hesitate to talk to their paediatrician or a speech pathologist if they are worried about their child's stuttering.
In the United States, Grossman said, speech-language therapy is widely available, though parents would want to make sure the speech pathologist has expertise in managing stuttering.
The number of therapy sessions, and the cost, would vary based on where you live and the severity of your child's stuttering, according to the Stuttering Foundation. But the charges generally range from R519 to R1 297 an hour, which insurance may or may not cover.
Once kids are in school, though, they may be eligible for free evaluation and therapy through their school district, according to the foundation.
Learn more from the Stuttering Foundation.