Our three year old has started to stutter

Our three-year-old daughter Katie has begun to stutter.  Up until now she's been very clear in her speech.  She stutters the most when she's excited or trying to explain something to us.  She'll say, "I saw . . .I saw . . .I saw . .", then pause, and then start again. Or she'll say "That . .that. . " and seem stuck. Sometimes she gives up, but most of the time she'll eventually get a sentence out.  I don’t remember this kind of problem with her big sister who is very verbal. Should we be worried?

Katie's speech pattern  is common among three-year-olds. Three-year-olds are bursting with ideas, information, and new observations that they can't wait to share.  Sometimes, however, their language and vocabulary skills don't flow as rapidly as their thoughts. So they get "stuck", just as you’ve noticed with Katie..

Katie is trying to take all of her wonderful thoughts and translate them into words. The words she knows may not be adequate to convey the magic of her real experience.  It sounds as if sometimes she is trying so hard that she forgets what she wanted to tell you in the first place!

It is quite normal when a pre-school age child occasionally repeats briefly the initial sounds, syllables, or short words at the beginning of a sentence.  Sometimes a child will pause and start over, sometimes she will change the subject, but often she may not even notice her lack of fluency.  It's common for the stutter-like repetitions to occur most often when a child is excited or trying to get adults to pay attention.

All that you have to do is listen patiently and respond with enthusiasm. If Katie is really stuck and seems frustrated you can say, "I know that what you want to say must be really exciting". You don't need to correct or help her. If she feels that you are always correcting her she may become so self-conscious that speaking will get harder for her.

Sometimes an older sibling is so talkative that a young child doesn't get the time to practice conversation. When you are talking to Katie  try to slow down and use short sentences and a simple vocabulary.  Try to make time every day for one-to-one talks together, perhaps at bedtime or when you are driving in the car.   At the dinner table, make sure that everyone has a chance to speak, even if you have to set up "taking turns".  Try to slow down at home in general, giving Katie time to pace herself rather than having to keep up with the pace of others. 

Over the next few months, you should hear Katie's speech patterns developing into a more fluent representation of her thoughts.  Of course, if you notice that she seems to be having more trouble expressing herself, if she seems to be bothered by her inability to get her words out, or if you yourself are worried, talk to your health care provider about seeing a speech and language specialist (usually called a "speech pathologist" or "speech therapist") for an evaluation.  A meeting with a speech therapist is usually  fun for a child and very educational for parents.  Many minor problems, treated early, disappear by the time a young child begins kindergarten.