How to Help a Kid With a Childhood Speech Impediment

Difficulties in speech that many call "speech impediments" are common as language develops. Just don’t wait too long to seek help.

by Matthew Utley
Child engaged in speech therapy looking at a mirror while speech therapist has fingers on her throat

It can be very frustrating for a child suffering from a speech impediment —be it stutter or lisp — to figure out how to join a conversation. Importantly, Speech-language pathologists practicing speech therapy don’t consider “speech impediment” to be a particularly helpful word. Speech is very complicated, requiring many skills to develop concurrently. The American Speech Language Association prefers the terms “speech delay” or “speech disorder,” both of which are fairly common.

“Speech includes how we pronounce or articulate the sounds in words, the quality of our voice, and the fluency or smoothness of delivery,” says to Melanie Potock, a pediatric speech pathologist, a feeding specialist, and the author of Adventures in Veggieland.

Dysfluencies in language – such as stuttering or repeating words or starting sentences over – may be a part of typical speech development as toddlers learn to produce these sounds. A child who may be difficult to understand when they first learn to string words into sentences will usually develop enough articulation over time to be understood. If they don’t, they may have an articulation delay or an articulation disorder.

“Delay refers to a gap in development. That stall or break in development may be mild or enough to cause concern,” explains Potock. “Children have an articulation disorder when testing shows that they are producing the sounds, syllables or words atypically when compared with other children of the same sex and age.”

Each child develops at their own pace, however, so it can be difficult to identify when typical dysfluencies become a problem. There can be a lot of factors for parents to look for, but Potock has identified some general red flags that might signal a serious issue.

Red Flags for Speech Impediments:

  • Frustration: the child is frustrated by their inability to communicate. Biting, excessive whining, and tantrums may all be indicators of an inability to communicate wants and needs.
  • Unintelligibility to strangers: neighbors and new friends don’t understand the child. Parents often learn to decipher developing speech patterns, but those unfamiliar with them will be confused
  • Unintelligibility at home: even family members may not be able to understand a child with confusing word form, limited intelligibility, poor voice control or stuttering.
  • They sound immature: parents shouldn’t compare their kids to other kids – but if other kids the same age sound more grown-up, parents may want to discuss the possibility of a speech delay with their pediatrician.
  • Difficulty eating: early difficulties with feeding development may be an indicator of delays in oral motor skills and thus, directly related to speech and possibly language development.

“Parents should contact their child’s doctor to discuss the possibility of consulting with a certified speech-language pathologist if they are concerned about their child’s speech or language or notice any of the signs,” advises Potock. “Early intervention services for children birth to age 3 are available in every state in the U.S., and evaluations are free to low-cost, as is therapy, should the child qualify.”

A certified speech-language pathologist can make speech therapy fairly entertaining for a child, and it’s an excellent chance for socialization. There is some homework so parents can practice good habits at home with their child, but it’s similar to the sort of games many parents already play with their children – memory games, sorting games, and reading. If a parent suspects their child is struggling with language, they shouldn’t wait to see what happens before they bring it up with a pediatrician.

“Don’t wait,” cautions Potock. “The wider that gap grows, the longer the child will be in therapy. Parent proactively and talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns and he/she will guide you through the options.”