I hear this question all the time from parents whose child has a lisp. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple to answer without explaining a few things first.
Have you ever noticed that your child is poking their tongue out when they’re speaking or that they sound “slushy”? Do you or other people find it difficult to understand their speech clearly? This could be a sign that your child has a lisp.
Some parents already know their child is lisping, but you’d be surprised to hear how many parents never realised their child has a lisp. This is usually because they are so used to hearing their child’s speech every day (and they can usually still understand them), that this speech error goes unnoticed, or they don’t know what a lisp is. We successfully treat lisps on a daily basis in our clinic, plus we have a trained ear, so we can show you what to look and listen for.
What is a lisp?
There are in fact four different types of lisps, and this is why it isn’t always as straight-forward as people may assume.
Interdental lisp or also known as a frontal lisp
This lisp is probably the most common one children have and usually the one most people are familiar with. This is where the tongue sticks out between the front teeth on all /s/ and /z/ sounds, and essentially makes a sound like a /th/. So instead of “snake”, kids will say “thnake” or “bus” will sounds like “buth”. Children can also have an interdental production (i.e. putting the tongue between the teeth) for other sounds like /t/, /d/, /l/ and /n/. Check out the video below for an example.
With this lips, the front of the tongue pushes against the inside of the front teeth and makes the /s/ and /z/ sounds quite muffled.
This lisp is usually described as a “slushy” or a “wet” lisp. This is because the airflow that’s produced for the /s/ and /z/ sounds, is coming out the sides of the mouth into the cheeks, rather than out the front/centre of the mouth where the airflow should be going. The lateral lisp can sometimes affect the /sh/, /ch/ and /j/ sounds as well.
This lisp occurs when the middle of the tongue touches the soft palate of the mouth. It’s really difficult to comprehend what that would sound like, but if you tried to say the /h/ sound closely followed by the /y/ sound, you would have a pretty good production of a palatal lisp.
Here is a video of my daughter Scarlett showing you what an interdental lisp looks and sounds like. She is currently attending speech therapy sessions to correct her lisp and I will begin a blog series to cover her progress over the coming weeks with hints and tips for you to try at home.
Other people tell me my child has a lisp, but I don’t hear it
Have you ever had to translate your child’s speech to another person because they had trouble understanding what they said? As a parent, you hear your child speak everyday, so you are familiar with how they sound, so you get pretty good at knowing what they’re saying. So it can come as a surprise sometimes that others find it difficult to understand your child or that you yourself don’t always realise your child actually has any speech errors until someone else points it out.
It depends on the severity of the lisp and how many sounds it’s affecting in a child’s speech, as to whether or not people have trouble understanding them. With children who only have a mild lisp on just the /s/ and /z/ sounds, you’ll probably find that despite this error, their overall clarity of speech isn’t affected too much. On the other hand, children with a significant lisp that’s affecting multiple sounds, can be much harder to understand, particularly for people who are not familiar with that child.
I will aim to answer the questions that you will mostly likely have, so hopefully by the end of this post, you’ll have a much better understanding of how to recognise if your child has a lisp, whether or not you should be worried, and more importantly, how we can fix this. If you have a question that I haven’t covered below, please comment on this post or get in contact with us and we will answer your questions.
Your lisp questions answered
What causes a lisp?
Lisping is NOT seen in typical speech development in children. It is a speech error that can happen for no reason sometimes and it’s just one of those things that some children have from the time they started to talk. Other times though, there may be an underlying cause such as a tongue thrust swallow. Prolonged dummy use or thumb sucking can also contribute to lisps as the continuous forward sucking motion of the tongue (as described in our tongue thrust post), can affect speech as well due to the muscle memory which can be very strong. It can happen to any child, for example my own daughter has an interdental lisp, and she has never sucked her thumb or a dummy, doesn’t have a tongue thrust swallow, and her mum is a speech pathologist!
Will my child grow out of a lisp?
In most cases, children will NOT grow out of a lisp! There are plenty of websites and other speech pathologists out there who say that children can grow out of a lisp, however I question how often that really happens, and here is why I think that… Because a lisp is a tongue placement issue and muscle memory is often our biggest enemy in treating it, unless someone has taught the child how to correctly say the /s/ and /z/ sounds, I wonder how we can expect children to correct this entirely on their own without any form of intervention? And out of all speech errors that people can have, one of the few that are carried through into adulthood, is a lisp (think Jamie Oliver). You don’t often hear an adult say “dod” for “dog” because they haven’t learned the /g/ sound… Both personally and professionally, I have never seen a lisp resolve on its own yet in the 17 years I’ve been working as a speech pathologist. Now that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but those children who supposedly have grown out of it (I’d love to hear about them), did someone along the way show them how to make the sound correctly, or did they truly figure it out on their own? It’s often such an ingrained habit, it doesn’t just fix itself from one day to the next.
Why should my child need therapy to fix a lisp?
Ultimately, no one can force you or your child to do therapy, and having a lisp is probably not a big deal for some people in the big scheme of things. Having said that though, while some people will say it’s “cute” while they’re little, once children grow up into teenagers and adults, they are often teased or made fun of because they sound different. Sometimes there can also be the thought that someone with a lisp is not as intelligent as someone without a lisp (by the way, a lisp has no influence on intelligence at all!), but the reality is, that’s what some people assume if they don’t know anything about lisps. So think of the potential future consequences in adulthood if your child did not get their lisp corrected.
What is the best age to start therapy for a lisp?
This can vary depending on your child. Typically speaking, early intervention is the key, as the continuous movement of the tongue sticking out (interdental lisp) only reinforces this habit. The longer this habit remains (as with almost any habit), the more difficult it becomes to treat. Usually from 3.5 years of age onwards is a good time to start, bearing in mind the child’s maturity, personality, ability to follow instructions and attending to the task. If a child has a lateral lisp, which is definitely not considered as part of typical speech development, therapy is definitely recommended as soon as possible. At Kids Chatter, we see children as young as 3 years old for a lisp and have successfully fixed many children’s lisps.
Does a lisp affect my child’s education?
This can depend on the type and severity of the lisp. Having a lisp does not affect a person’s intelligence, so their ability to learn at school should not be affected. However, when a child is difficult to be understood by others, or the child is ashamed to speak up in class or if they are being bullied because of it, this can lead to them not wanting to participate in class, especially with things that require talking (oral presentations, reading aloud, answering questions etc.). So it’s usually the negative attention from the people around them that can result in a child struggling at school because they don’t want to talk. The social pressure can be huge for some children and we all know how mean some kids can be to others.
My child can say a proper /s/ sound on its own, so why aren’t they using it in their everyday talking? Are they just being lazy?
I can assure you, they are not being lazy! It takes quite a bit of effort and practise to change a long term habit into a new one. Especially in this case, where muscle memory is our biggest enemy, it’s not going to happen overnight unfortunately. As I often explain to the parents in our clinic, imagine if you, who can (presumably) say the /s/ sounds clearly, were suddenly expected to say all your words with a lisp on all /s/ and /z/ sounds (remember, they occur at the beginning, middle and end of words), could you do it? Chances are you probably can’t! We are essentially expecting our kids to do the same, but in reverse. This is why in speech therapy, we teach the child and their parents the systematic steps to get from that single sound all the way up through to conversational level. At Kids Chatter, we follow our Articulation Tracker that we have designed to show you exactly where your child is up to and what steps we still have to get through to work towards the ultimate goal of everyday conversation.
How do I know if it’s truly a lisp and not something else?
Hopefully, this post has given you some information about what a lisp is and how to recognise it. If you still find it difficult to identify what your child’s speech errors really are though, because it may not be an exact match of any of the descriptions above, then the best thing you can do is see a speech pathologist. We will be able to check exactly what type of lisp your child has, or identify if there’s another problem. If the errors are considered age appropriate, then we can monitor it over time, or if they are not age appropriate, we can discuss how we can treat it.
Can a lisp be fixed?
Yes! With the right speech therapy, motivation, practise and a bit of time, lisps can usually be successfully treated. You want to ensure though that if there’s an underlying cause for the lisp such as a tongue thrust swallow, that this problem is also addressed as in this case, the lisp is more of a symptom of tongue thrust, rather than the lisp being a problem on its own. So make sure your speech pathologist is qualified and experienced in checking for a tongue thrust swallow (very few speech pathologists actually have experience with this area) to rule it out or identify and treat accordingly. Thankfully at Kids Chatter, we deal with lots of children who have tongue thrust swallows, which can also be treated successfully.
My child’s front teeth are missing, will that cause them to lisp?
If a child does not already have an existing lisp and then they lose their front baby teeth, then theoretically there should be no reason why they should start lisping. Because the /s/ and /z/ sounds are TONGUE sounds, and not specifically teeth sounds, it is the tongue position that is important, whether or not there are teeth present. Now, it is quite likely that the quality of /s/ and /z/ sounds will change a little because the teeth do help in making it sound “hissy”, but most children adjust quite well and continue to use their tongue in their correct spot despite the gap.
My child’s front teeth are missing, does that mean they can’t do therapy?
As per the question above, the /s/ and /z/ sounds are based on tongue position, so it can be possible to do speech therapy to treat a lisp. However, if your child is new the speech therapy when they have a gap, sometimes we may recommend to wait until the teeth do grow back, because it will make it a little easier, especially when trying to achieve that “hissy” sound, but if they are already receiving therapy when their baby teeth fall out, they can usually continue. The speech pathologist can usually give you more specific advice based on your child’s circumstances.
Why do some adults still have a lisp?
Without intervention, lisps can persist into adulthood, especially for those children who have never been to speech therapy or didn’t complete all their therapy. Some adults have accepted their speech the way it is and have no desire to fix it, while others are really bothered by it and want to be able to fix it. Adults can attend speech therapy to treat a lisp and it works much the same as how we would treat it in children, probably minus the kid’s games though!
So, a lisp can sometimes be a very straight forward problem, while at other times it can be a little more complicated if we’re dealing with a lateral lisp or an underlying problem like a tongue thrust swallow. If you think/know that your child has a lisp, contact us for an assessment to determine what type of lisp your child has and we can explain how we can fix it as the longer a lisp is left untreated, the harder it can be to correct. If there is no lisp or other speech errors, we can reassure you that your child’s speech development is doing just fine and there is nothing to worry about. Should speech therapy be recommended and your child is ready, motivated and you can are able to commit to doing the follow-up homework practise, I believe the earlier therapy is started, the better the outcome will be and it will save you time and money in the long run.
If you found this post useful or you know someone with a child who has a lisp, please share this post so we can help other families.
BA, MSpPathSt, CPSP, MSPA
Speech Language Pathologist
Monique Speakman is a Paediatric Speech Pathologist in Brisbane with over 15 years experience, mother of a son and twin daughters, business owner and blogger. She aims to educate parents about child development and communication through the Kids Chatter Speech Pathology Blog and Facebook Page and to provide information and tips on anything to do with Speech Pathology.