top of page

Help! A lisp!


Welcome to the world of friction sounds - fricatives, sibilants, interdental sigmatisms! (no - not a stigmatism - that is more usual in the eye!)

Those are the technical terms for speech sounds like 'ss, zz', and others similar, and the speech defect commonly know as a 'lisp'. Mums or Teachers tell me that their child is 'talking funny' or 'He doesn't sound right when he says some words'. I sometimes say 'Duth he thound like thith? and they say 'Yes! that's it! '

At Nursery level, the wee girl or boy with a lisp sounds really cute! But by the time he or she reaches 5 or 6 years, a bit of concern is being expressed if there is still a lisp.

Often it is his nursery teacher who notices it - Mums often get used to the way their child talks and don't notice he sounds different.

A child gets into the habit of talking with these pronunciation errors if he doesn't sort out them out before the age of 6 or 7.

You can catch this speech defect early and correct it - or even prevent it. It is much harder to correct a lisp later: it has become a habit ( always hard to break) and is something the child him or herself will need to be motivated to sort out. That often does not happen till he or she becomes a teenager and acutely aware of how he or she sounds to others.


These are called ‘friction’ sounds because of the way the mouth uses air friction to form them. Often, other similar sounds are also affected, such as ‘sh, ch, j’.

A child usually develops these sounds after other speech sounds, often not being really established until a child is about 5 or 6 years old.

And then, of course, no sooner than the child manages to get a lovely hissssy sound through the front of his or her mouth, than hey presto!, the front teeth fall out, leaving a gap! The child often compensates by filling the gap with his or her tongue tip – and there is the beginning of a lisp!

Here's my wee grandson showing off his first gap! - >

However, some children lisp before they lose their front teeth. There can be several different reasons for this.


Dummies, Soothers, baby Feeders with teats used constantly and continued till well after the child is walking is a contributing factor in encouraging a lisp, as is sucking thumbs or fingers. Why?

Because when a baby sucks on a teat or dummy, s/ he is using a regular motion of his tongue to push the liquid back into the throat. This is appropriate when his/her mouth has not yet started to develop and take on the position and shape needed to eat solid food and drink from a cup. In the early stages of suckling / sucking this helps to shape the mouth and the arch inside the mouth. It is a strong action in a typical baby, and important in developing the coordination of muscles and shape of the mouth.

BUT – when a baby becomes a toddler, and has started to eat solid food and drink from a cup, the continued suckling from a bottle or on a soother tends to encourage the immature position of the tongue. The tongue tip pushes under the teat and far to the front of the mouth. And the teat acts as a stabiliser for the jaw, too, so the child does not need to work on controlling his or her jaw and keeping it steady, as is needed for learning to talk.

Similarly, a toddler who sucks his or her thumb pushes the teeth and tongue into positions that encourage faulty movements of the tongue, lips and jaw for speech. When the first, 'milk' teeth are beginning to fall out, thumb-sucking further aggravates the difficulty of getting coordinated movements of the mouth for speech patterns to develop.

This does not affect all children who suck their thumbs, but in those who are a little slower to develop, it certainly adds in a 'lisp-factor' that would be good for the child not to have.

There are of course, some toddlers, who, even without using soothers or thumb-sucking, retain their baby suckling movements, and have weak jaw stability, and tongue positions.

Thus, the tongue becomes strong in an immature way, pushing forwards and between the teeth, which is how a child lisps and says ‘th’ instead of ‘ss’. That is called an interdental sigmatism. - in this case due to what a Speech Therapist may call a 'tongue thrust'.


Avoid unnecessary use of dummies, soothers, drinking from baby feeders with teats, and sucking fingers or thumbs.

The best way is to take preventive action. A baby needs to suck, and most do at some time mainly for comfort or to pacify them (Why are these things often called 'pacifiers'?).


  1. Give a suitable pacifier, never with sweet or flavoured coverings or drinks - simple water is fine.

  2. Limit the time he has it in his mouth if possible only until you can take the actions in (3 and 4)

  3. When you take it from him, or he drops it, distract his attention onto a game - 'peekaboo' is a good one - and give him cuddles and physical play like tickling or stroking.

  4. NEVER leave a baby to sleep at night or for long naps with a pacifier in his mouth. Even if it means sitting with him, patting or stroking him till he falls asleep. (Actually, your presence and physical comfort is the most potent 'sleepifier')

What to do -

if your child starts saying the 's' sound and other similar sounds with a lisp,

- Don't say - 'No you didn't say it right! Copy me!' Get him to look at you and say - 'Yes, that's right - it's a 'swing'! and give him a good clear model of how to say it.

- Have fun with sounds - play 'funny-talk' with him. copy what he says and get him to copy funny-talk with you. Use lots of different sounds, including 'sh' and 'ss, zz'. This is a game, so it is different from correcting him when he says a word wrongly.

Playing games of being animals or flying planes are fun ways to practice different sounds -



- get him to use a straw to drink at least once a day, and encourage him to use just the tip of the straw, (make it a game) as that will help him to push his tongue back in his mouth when he is drinking - try it yourself! It also helps his lip and jaw control.

- link the 'ss' and 'zz' sound with the letters s and z in books as a game, when you read with your little one. Get him to pick them out, say them for him and with him.

- by the time your child has started losing his milk teeth, he should be old enough and confident enough for you to playfully say to him something like - 'Ha! now you will have to pop your tongue further back in your mouth to stop it popping out when you talk!'

In most cases, the lisp will sort itself out quite naturally when you take the above approaches. If you still feel he has a problem with his pronunciation, check it out with a Speech Therapist.

Best wishes

Margi Kulsoom

Like what you read? Subcribe to Receive Margi's Weekly Articles!

Would you like to read more articles like this, and learn more practical tips and guidance for dealing with learning and communication difficulties?



Like what you read? Subcribe to Receive Margi's Weekly Articles!

Would you like to read more articles like this, and learn more practical tips and guidance for dealing with learning and communication difficulties?



No tags yet.
bottom of page