Stuttering is a speech disorder. People who stutter may repeat sounds, syllables, or words, or they may prolong sounds.
Stuttering affects more than 70 million people worldwide, including more than 3 million people in the United States. It is more common among men than women. Some people refer to stuttering as stammering or childhood onset fluency disorder.
Approximately 5–10% of all children will stutter at some point in their lives, but most will typically outgrow this within a few months or years. Early intervention can help children overcome stuttering.
For 1 in 4 of these children, however, the problem will persist into adulthood and can become a lifelong communication disorder.
In this article, we describe strategies that people who stutter can use to try to reduce these speech disruptions. We also list ways in which parents and caregivers can help children overcome a stutter.
Quick tips for reducing stuttering
There is no instant cure for stuttering. However, certain situations — such as stress, fatigue, or pressure — can make stuttering worse. By managing these situations, as far as possible, people may be able to improve their flow of speech.
With this in mind, the following tips may be useful:
Practice speaking slowly
Speaking slowly and deliberately can reduce stress and the symptoms of a stutter. It can be helpful to practice speaking slowly every day.
For example, people could try reading aloud at a slow pace when they are on their own. Then, when they have mastered this, they can use this pace when speaking to others.
Another option is to add a brief pause between phrases and sentences to help slow down speech.
Avoid trigger words
People who stutter should not feel as though they have to stop using particular words if this is not their preference.
However, some people may wish to avoid specific words that tend to cause them to stammer. In this case, it might be helpful to make a list of these words and find alternatives to use.
- decreased use of avoidance strategies, such as speaking less
- improved emotional control
According to the authors of a 2018 case study, adding mindfulness meditation to a treatment program for stuttering may be beneficial for some people.
To practice mindfulness, consider joining a class, downloading a smartphone app, or watching videos online.
Long term treatments
A speech therapist can help a person manage situations in which stuttering gets worse.
Treatment usually works best when people begin to address stuttering at an early stage. The parents and caregivers of children who stutter should consider taking a child to see a speech therapist if:
- they have stuttered for 3–6 months
- they show signs of struggling with stuttering, such as lip tremors
- there is a family history of stuttering or other communication disorders
Although it may not stop stuttering completely, treatment at any age aims to improve speech fluency, build the person’s confidence, and help them participate in school, work, and social settings.
Treatments for stuttering include:
A speech therapist can teach people to:
- slow down their rate of speech
- notice when they stutter
- manage situations in which stuttering gets worse
- work on a fluid speech pattern
CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps people change how they think and alter their behavior accordingly. CBT for stuttering may involve:
- direct communication
- educating the person about stuttering
- problem solving
- exercises to extend the length of sounds
- relaxation techniques, including deep breathing
- challenging unhelpful thoughts
CBT may lead to positive changes in thoughts and attitudes around stuttering and reduce stuttering-related anxiety.
Electronic devices are available to help people manage their speech and improve their fluency. Some of these devices work by assisting people in slowing down their speech. Others mimic speech so that it sounds as though the person is talking in unison with someone else.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, speaking in unison with someone else may temporarily reduce a person’s stuttering.
Some of the medications that doctors prescribe for stuttering include:
- alprazolam (Xanax), an anti-anxiety drug
- citalopram (Celexa), an antidepressant
- clomipramine (Anafranil), another antidepressant
However, The Stuttering Foundation advise that these drugs are not effective for the majority of people. Even when they do work, people report the improvements as being modest.
The National Stuttering Foundation suggest that medications may work best when people combine their use with speech therapy.
It is important that parents and caregivers support children who stutter. They can do this by:
- listening attentively and using appropriate eye contact
- refraining from completing words or phrases for a child
- avoiding interrupting, correcting, or criticizing a child
- avoiding focusing on the stutter and using phrases such as “slow down” or “take your time,” as these can make a child feel more self-conscious
- speaking slowly and deliberately to children who stutter, as they may mirror the adult’s pace when they speak
- minimizing stress in the home, as stress can make stuttering worse
- reducing a child’s exposure to situations in which they feel pressured or rushed and those that require them to speak in front of others
- speaking to a teacher if bullying is occurring in school as a result of a child’s stutter
Connecting with others who stutter can be beneficial for many people. Self-help groups enable people to discover additional resources and supports for stuttering.
For more information, see the National Stuttering Association’s list of local chapters.
Genetics may be a causative factor for some cases of stuttering.
Researchers do not understand the exact cause of stuttering. Based on current knowledge, they typically class stuttering as one of the following types:
Developmental stuttering is the most common type. It occurs in young children who are learning language skills. It is likely to be the result of multiple factors, including genetics.
Due to its genetic component, developmental stuttering can run in families. Approximately 60% of people who stutter have a family member who also stutters.
Neurogenic stuttering can occur due to brain trauma, such as that resulting from a stroke or head injury. The brain then struggles to coordinate the mechanisms that speech involves.
In the past, scientists believed that all stuttering was psychogenic, meaning that it was due to emotional trauma. Now, they consider this type of stuttering to be rare.
Can a stutter be cured?
There is no cure for stuttering, although early treatment may stop childhood stuttering from persisting into adulthood.
A variety of treatments can help those with a lifelong stutter manage their speech and reduce the frequency and severity of stuttering.
Early intervention is important for children who stutter, most of whom will eventually outgrow it. About 25% will continue to experience stuttering throughout their adult lives, however.
While there is no cure for stuttering, speech therapy can be particularly effective in helping people gain control over their speech. CBT and mindfulness interventions may also help with some aspects of stuttering.
Researchers are continuing to explore the causes of stuttering and potential treatment options. In time, they may be able to identify the children who are more likely to continue stuttering in adulthood.
If scientists can understand the underlying cause of stuttering, they may be able to identify more effective medications or other treatments.