Are masks affecting speech and language development in children?

Are masks affecting speech and language development in children?

As we enter another month of the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents worry about the effects on their children long term. We know safety measures like isolating and masking are important, but can these precautions, particularly masking, lead to developmental delays?

The short answer: probably not. But whether in school, at daycare or out in public, your child is exposed to and expected to interact with individuals who are masked on a regular basis. Children learn communication skills through watching and listening to others. When an individual is masked, much of their face is covered, so parents may be wondering what that could mean when it comes to interacting with a child.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is how quickly a child will engage with you. It takes children longer to establish rapport because of the lack of exposure to unfamiliar people and facial expressions,” says Maria Harrigan, a speech language pathologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital. “While there’s no evidence yet of masking causing a language-speech delay, it may impact a child’s engagement and attentiveness in play-based and therapy-based tasks. It’s amazing how a warm, friendly smile can make a child feel comfortable.”

Harrigan says that many children benefit from visual or tactile cues when teaching early developing speech sounds – for example, drawing awareness to the mouth when teaching articulation. Masking limits the effectiveness of these types of cues, so clinicians are modifying their approach when teaching sounds.

Children between the ages of birth to 3 years are most likely affected the greatest by masking. “They’re in the most crucial years for language development and establishing motor patterns for speech,” says Harrigan. She says peer relationships can even be impacted.

“Between birth to 3 years, sounds are still developing, which affects how people understand you. A mask is an additional sound barrier during communication, requiring children to repeat themselves. This can impact their confidence with language and communication with peers.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips to better communicate with a child while masked, which include getting a child’s attention before speaking and using eyes, hands, body language and changes in tone of voice to add information to speech.

“These tactics should be used in every situation. Unfortunately, sometimes a lack of awareness from the public is a problem. Not everyone is considering the child with a hearing aid. Using different vocal intonation to convey intention and meaning is key to assisting children with the overall message,” she says.

Now is the perfect time to make an appointment with a primary care physician. Whether you live in Illinois or Wisconsin, it’s easy to find a doctor near you. 

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About the Author

Holly Brenza
Holly Brenza

Holly Brenza, health enews contributor, is the public affairs coordinator at Advocate Children's Hospital. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her free time, Holly enjoys reading, watching the White Sox and Blackhawks, playing with her dog, Bear and running her cats' Instagram account, @strangefurthings.