Stammering – or stuttering – is a relatively common speech problem in childhood but can also persist into adulthood.

Stammering is characterised by:

  • the repetition of sounds or syllables – such as saying ‘mu-mu-mu-mummy’
  • prolonging sounds – for example 'mmmmmmummy'
  • pausing or 'blocking' – when a word gets stuck or doesn't come out at all

It usually occurs at the beginning of speech, and people will often avoid certain words or speaking situations to try to hide it.

Stammering varies in severity from person to person. A person might find that they have periods of stammering followed by times when they speak relatively fluently.

Read more about the signs of stammering.

Types of stammering

There are two main types of stammer:

  • Developmental stammering is the most common type of stammering that many people are familiar with. It develops during childhood as a child is first learning how to speak.
  • Acquired or late-onset stammering can occur in older children and adults as the result of a severe head injury, stroke or a progressive neurological disease (disease affecting the nervous system). It can also be caused by certain drugs or medication, or psychological or emotional trauma.

The rest of this article will focus on developmental stammering.

What causes stammering?

The exact cause of developmental stammering is still unclear, although it is largely thought to be the result of the parts of the brain involved in speech being 'wired' differently.

Studies have shown differences in the structure and functioning of the brain of people who stammer compared with most other people.

In young children, the wiring of the brain is still developing, which may be why many children eventually 'grow out' of stammering and why it is usually easier to treat children while they are still young.

Genes are also thought to play a role in many cases of stammering, as around two in every three people who stammer have a family history of the condition. This suggests that the genes a child inherits from their parents might make them more likely to develop a stammer.

Research has identified several genes that may contribute to stammering that runs in families, although exactly how these genes lead to the condition is currently unknown.

Who is affected

Stammering is common in young children. Estimates for developmental stammering vary, but it is often suggested that around one in 20 children will experience a phase of non-fluent speech.

In around three in every four cases affecting young children, stammering will resolve over time with or without treatment. However, it is difficult to predict when this will happen and some children will require treatment to prevent the problem persisting into adulthood.

The condition is more likely to persist in males than females, which is why there are around four times as many men as women with a stammer. The reason for this is unclear.

It is estimated that one in every 100 adults has a stammer.

Getting help

If you have any concerns about your child's speech and language development, seek advice.

Treatment is often highly successful in resolving stammers in pre-school age children, especially if it is received as soon as possible, so early referral to a specialist is key.

A good person to contact first may be your GP, who can discuss your concerns with you and refer you to a speech and language therapist (SLT) for an assessment if necessary. Alternatively, many speech and language services accept self-referrals from patients and parents.

You can contact the British Stammering Association helpline on 0845 603 2001 for advice about seeking help and information about the services available in your area.

It may also be worth seeking advice from your GP or an SLT if you are an adult with a stammer and it is having a significant impact on your social and work life.

How stammering is treated

There are many different speech and language therapy approaches that can help people to improve fluency and communication skills in people who stammer.

A therapist will work with you to come up with a suitable plan tailored to your or your child's individual circumstances.

This may involve:

  • working to create an environment in which a child feels more relaxed and confident about their use of language
  • working on feelings associated with stammering, such as fear and anxiety
  • strategies to improve fluency and communication skills

Electronic ‘anti-stammering’ devices are also available and can be helpful for some people. These are designed to help people control their speech by giving them sound feedback, although they are not generally available on the NHS.

Read more about treating stammering.

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