Speaking Out About Developmental Delays

COVID’s impact on language development

Children follow instructions as they play games at UTMC Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic.

Pediatric speech and language pathologists around the country have been noting a sharp increase in speech delays in recent months. Many wonder how the COVID pandemic has influenced this trend, and if social distancing, masking and increased screen time have had a negative impact on children’s development.

“I think there is evidence that lack of interaction has taken a toll on social and emotional health for all of us, including toddlers and preschoolers,” said Mike Dillon, Clinic Coordinator at
University of Toledo Medical Center’s Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic. “Like any other skill, language and speech get better through practice. When children don’t have peers as models or practice
partners, they lose those opportunities.”

Dillon believes that a variety of factors may be contributing to the increase. “In my opinion, the pandemic has certainly not helped matters,” Dillon said. “Our clinic currently has a waiting list of 8-10 individuals, but I know from talking to my colleagues that many pediatric speech language providers have waiting lists that are months long.”

Skipped Check-Ups, Missed Screenings
During the pandemic, many parents were forgoing routine wellness
examinations, which led to missed early intervention opportunities. Dillon cautions parents and caregivers to keep those appointments. “This is a big concern in terms of both overall health and speech-language development. We know that an amazing amount of
physical and cognitive development is taking place during the first three years of life, so it is important to recognize and follow up on red flags as early as possible,” explains Dillon, adding, “Things like hearing screenings, speech/language questionnaires or even observations by health providers can catch potential issues early and make referrals to the appropriate professionals.”

Masking The Problem
Protective face masks, added to our daily routines, are an obvious culprit in the speech delay phenomenon. Masks muffle the quality of speech, making it difficult for language learners to hear. Also, babies begin lip-reading at eight months of age. When masks cover half the face, it becomes impossible to watch lips form words and makes the reading of facial expressions challenging.

Dillon said that speech-language pathologists have found creative ways to overcome these obstacles, such as using clear masks and face shields to allow children to see their mouths moving when working on specific sounds.

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that, currently, there are no known studies that have definitively linked face masks with speech delays. Even so, they do offer the following tips for interacting with children while wearing face masks:

  • Get the child’s attention before talking.
  • Face the child directly and make sure nothing is blocking the child’s view.
  • Speak slowly and slightly louder (without shouting).
  • Use eyes, hands, body language and changes in tone of voice to add meaning and context to speech.
  • Ask the child if they understood; repeat words and sentences when necessary.
  • Reduce noise and reduce distractions.

What to do if you suspect a delay
If a parent is worried about their child’s development, they should seek help as soon as possible.

“If you are noticing that your child isn’t progressing in their language development or is not engaging with others, these can be red flags to talk to your pediatrician about getting a referral for
services,” Dillon recommends. “There are also specific social skills like reading someone’s emotions and knowing how to carry on a conversation that are best learned in a natural environment. Parents and families can certainly do these things at home.”

  • Take a walk and talk about what you are seeing.
  • Model the language you want them to use.
  • Make time for one-on-one play.
  • Limit time that kids are alone with screens and devices.
  • Have your child engage with other children to get peer models and to practice socialization.

For more information, consult the following resources:

The University of Toledo Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic

The American Speech-Language Hearing Association

Ohio Early Intervention Services

Michigan Early Intervention Services