Pandemic delays babies' language development

Social distancing and face mask wearing has delayed language and speech development of babies
23 October 2022




Social distancing and face mask wearing has delayed language and speech development of babies born during the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent study finds.

Researchers compared developmental milestones reached at age one of babies that were born during the pandemic to a group of babies born ten years before in Ireland.

“We discovered that most of the developmental milestones were met similarly, but babies born during the pandemic were less likely to express one word with meaning, to be able to point, or to wave bye-bye,” says Susan Byrne, a paediatric neurologist at Ireland’s Royal College of Surgeons.

The measures enforced during the pandemic have severely limited opportunities for babies to socialise, explore and interact with people outside the home. These are critical for the development of communication skills.

“When you look at the milestones that weren't achieved, these were things that would be influenced by being out and about in the world," explains Byrne. "For example, waving bye-bye. If people aren't allowed to come into your home, you're not able to wave bye-bye because you’re not used to people leaving.”

Other findings can also be explained by pandemic restrictions. “Concerning pointing, if babies have been at home with their mums, dads and siblings, they are familiar with their environment,” says Byrne. This reduces the number of times a new item is encountered that may otherwise require pointing.

Furthermore, babies learn languages by observing their caregiver's eyes and mouth during interactions. The use of face masks restricted babies' access to visual and facial cues necessary for this development. Researchers suggest that the sight of masked faces and reduced social interactions also decreased the range of language encountered.

Although it's unclear how the pandemic may affect long-term development, and while these findings may concern parents, Byrne is nevertheless optimistic that, now that restrictions have been lifted, babies and toddlers going out and exploring the world as normal ought to be able to make up for lost time. “Babies are exceptionally inquisitive and social little people!”


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