Stuttering is best treated early, before children start school, according to new evidence published in the British Medical Journal.
About 5% of children begin to stutter, usually in the third and fourth years of life. The consensus is that early intervention in the preschool years is necessary, but evidence to support this is currently lacking.
Researchers tested a new behavioural treatment (the Lidcombe programme) developed specifically for stuttering in preschool children to see whether its effects were significantly and clinically greater than those of natural recovery.
Fifty-four children aged 3-6 years took part. Each child was diagnosed with a frequency of at least 2% syllables stuttered. Twenty-nine received the Lidcombe programme and 25 acted as controls. Over nine months, 517 speech samples were collected for analysis.
Before the study, severity of stuttering was similar in the two groups. After nine months, the control group had reduced their frequency of stuttering by an average of 43% but only 15% of children had attained a minimum level of stuttering (1% of syllables stuttered).
In contrast, the treatment group had reduced their stuttering by 77% and over half (52%) of children had attained a minimum level of stuttering.
The Lidcombe programme is a significantly and clinically more effective treatment for stuttering than natural recovery in children of preschool age, say the authors.
Several reasons support implementing the programme in the preschool years. For example, the programme seems to be less effective once children reach school age, while delaying treatment until school age risks exposing children to the serious social and psychological effects of stuttering at this age, they conclude.