A study published in the Aug. 26 online edition of Pediatrics suggests that although stuttering is common among preschoolers, it is not likely to have an adverse effect on their social and emotional development.
The study, conducted by the University of Melbourne, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and the University of Sydney, followed 1,619 children ages 8 months to 4 years. The investigators found that by age 4, 11 percent had begun stuttering, nearly more than twice reported by previous studies.
Lead researcher Sheena Reilly, associate director of clinical and public research at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, told Fox News that previous studies may have missed stuttering cases because they did not take into account children under the age of 3. Reilly and her colleagues found that most cases of stuttering occurred between the ages of 2 and 3.
The good news is that the study found that stuttering children did not exhibit poor emotional and social development during their preschool years. In addition, researchers found that stuttering was associated with better language development and non-verbal skills in 4-year-olds.
According to Heather Grossman, PhD, clinical director of the American Institute for Stuttering (AIS) in New York, the finding is not surprising.
Grossman, who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay that children who stuttered may be “linguistically precocious.”
In some preschoolers, she explained, 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,” and this leads to stuttering, said Grossman.
What did surprise researchers, however, was that recovery from stuttering was low. Of the 142 preschoolers who developed stuttering, only 6.3 percent saw it disappear after 12 months.
“We don’t know why recovery rates were so much lower,” Reilly told Fox News. “Some children seem to grow out of their stuttering, or get better naturally, others get better with treatment.”
Reilly and her colleagues will continue to follow the study group to learn more about their recovery from stuttering. They also stress that their findings were based on averages, and acknowledge that some children who stutter might show signs of being shy or withdrawn.
The AIS’ Grossman agrees. “There are some children who even at this young age do have these [emotional or social] issues,” she said. She cautioned that if the stuttering does not improve, these children could develop more problems when they are older and in school.
What does all this mean to parents of a preschooler who stutters?
The study researchers recommend a 12-month period of “watchful waiting” as a reasonable approach to preschool stuttering. If your child is distressed, if you are concerned that your child’s stuttering is getting worse, or if your child becomes unwilling to communicate, both Reilly and Grossman agree you should talk to your pediatrician or consult a speech pathologist.