Do masks delay kids’ speech and language development?

October 20, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

Your child’s early years are filled with milestones — their first smile, that first giggle, their first words.

But living in a world of COVID-19 restrictions and face masks may leave you wondering how those restrictions could affect your child’s development. After all, babies and toddlers learn how to express themselves by watching others’ facial expressions and mouth movements as they talk — and face masks hide much of that.

At this time, there is no evidence to suggest your child’s exposure to only partial facial expressions (due to face masks) delays development.

It’s also worth noting that visually impaired children develop language skills at the same rate as their peers, according to an article from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The article notes that children intuitively will use other clues — such as tone of voice or gestures — and listen to how words are said and what emotions are conveyed through the eyes when another form of expression is not available.

That’s not to say that there won’t be challenges or that there’s not concern about the long-term impact.

Speech language therapy services, for example, have had to adapt and rely more on coaching parents on how to help their child as one-on-one time with the therapist is restricted with face masks, Plexiglas separators or social distancing.

Parent involvement has always played a key factor in the success of speech therapy services, but speech language therapist Tara Kehoe, SLP, says parental involvement is even more important in a world where COVID-19 results in social distancing, face masks and Plexiglas barriers in many speech therapy settings.

“Parents are needing to be more involved,” Kehoe says, who now focuses more on coaching parents on how to help their children. “The parents will have more effect in the long run.”

While therapists still work to build the bond between themselves and their patient, therapists also work with the parents, showing them how to reinforce what was practiced in individual sessions.

At home, parents can mimic some of what the therapist does in session. Simple steps, like placing your finger by your mouth to focus your child’s attention on how you are making a particular sound, can help. Making sure your child gets regular face time with you and other family members — without the masks — is also key.

“We need to pay more attention to the human being and human face because they’re not getting enough of that,” Kehoe says.

Social language and the ability to pick up social queues is made more difficult when faces are obscured and children can only see someone’s eyes, Kehoe says.

To overcome that, Kehoe encourages families — now more than ever — to set aside electronic devices and have dedicated family time each day. Activities such as reading or playing a game can not only create a time of bonding and special memories, but also aid in your child’s development.

Other speech therapy services, such as feeding therapy, also have taken on a different look with COVID-19 restrictions, Kehoe says. In those sessions, therapists often watch the parent from another room or a screen and provide the parent with instruction on feeding techniques or how to model certain behavior for their child.

Though speech-language therapy services may look a bit different, Kehoe says parents should still watch for the same warning signs that their child may need assistance. Learn how to know the early signs of a speech-language disorder. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association also has a series of milestone checklists, based on a child’s age, to help guide you.

If you have any concern that your child may not be reaching key milestones or is having difficulty in expressing themselves, talk to your pediatrician and reach out to a speech-language therapist.

Learn more about speech therapy at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Related blog:

Know the early signs of a speech-language disorder

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