Do Masks Delay Speech & Language Development?
By the American Academy of Pediatrics
During a child’s first few years of life, they are rapidly developing communication skills. Whether by smiling, cooing and babbling, pointing and gesturing, or saying their first words, children express themselves from birth. But a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic and no solid end in sight, some families wonder whether continuous use of face masks by daycare providers, preschool teachers, and other adults may negatively affect their child’s speech and language development.
While this is a natural concern, there is no known evidence that use of face masks interferes with speech and language development or social communication. Plus, children can still get plenty of face time at home with mask-free family members.
How do babies learn to communicate?
Babies are hard-wired to communicate. From day one, they are watching their loved ones’ faces and mouth movements. They are listening to them talk (for families that use spoken language) and making attempts to interact with their parents and caregivers. Each milestone builds on another.
Parents and other family members encourage this development by talking, singing, playing peek-a-boo, reading, and engaging their baby in numerous other ways every day. The more language a child is exposed to—and the more undivided attention a parent can give to their child as they feed them, bathe them, change their diaper, practice tummy time with them, push them in a stroller, and play outside with them—the better the child’s communication skills will likely be.
Can mask use cause delays in speech and language development?
A key part of learning to communicate for a child is watching the faces, mouths, and expressions of the people closest to them. Babies and young children study faces intently, so the concern about solid masks covering the face is understandable. However, there are no known studies that use of a face mask negatively impacts a child’s speech and language development.
And consider this: visually impaired children develop speech and language skills at the same rate as their peers. In fact, when one sense is taken away, the others may be heightened. Young children will use other clues provided to them to understand and learn language. They will watch gestures, hear changes in tone of voice, see eyes convey emotions, and listen to words.
How to boost your child’s communication skills as use of face masks continues
Remember, babies and toddlers learn the most from their family! Families can help with speech and language development and social communication through face time at home with family members who aren’t wearing masks. By providing dedicated time to converse with your child without screens or other interruptions—for example, at bath time and dinner time—children should reach their expected milestones.
Regardless of mask use, some children will take longer to reach speech and language milestones—and some may need help meeting them. Speech and language delays and disorders are common in young children, but these are highly treatable with help from a certified speech-language pathologist. If you have concerns about your child’s skills, don’t delay—seek an evaluation as early as possible. Children can be evaluated for free through their local early intervention program (no referral is necessary). After the evaluation, your child can receive free or low-cost treatment if needed. Children qualify for these services based on the degree of their delay (each state has different requirements), not family income.
How are speech and language services provided with masks?
Some children were already receiving early intervention services, or were seeing a private speech-language pathologist, before the pandemic. Many families continued these services, but others took a break for various reasons and are now looking to start again. Still other parents and caregivers may have developed concern for the first time over the past year and a half. Regardless, families should know that speech/language therapy services are still occurring—and children are still making significant progress—at this time, even if a speech-language pathologist is wearing a mask.
Some speech-language pathologists have been providing services virtually (called telehealth). While young children may have a difficult time sitting in front of a computer, early intervention is often focused on parent coaching—giving caregivers techniques to boost their child’s communication skills. Speech-language pathologists are also still working directly with children, both through telehealth and in-person. In person, some providers use clear masks so their faces are still visible or masks with face shields to provide additional protection—or work with children outside when possible.
When it comes to use of face masks, the bottom line is safety first! Masks reduce transmission of COVID-19 and can make in-person schooling possible during the pandemic. Luckily, your child’s speech and language skills can continue to grow.
If you have any concerns or questions about your child’s communication skills, your pediatrician can help. They can evaluate your child’s progress and, if needed, provide you with contact information for the early intervention program in your area or a private speech-language pathologist. A searchable database of professionals is also available from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association at www.asha.org/profind.
Ask your pediatrician:
• Should she be talking by now?
• What are some ways I can boost my baby’s development at home?
• When do babies first smile?
• How much digital media use is good for babies, toddlers, & preschoolers?
• What are the signs of language delays in toddlers?
Communication Tips While Wearing a Face Mask
Here are some ways that people who wear face masks can help when they interact with your child:
• 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)
• ensure a child is using hearing aids or using other hearing devices, if they have been prescribed
• use eyes, hands, body language, and changes in tone of voice to add information to speech
• ask the child if they understood; repeat words and sentences when necessary
• reduce noise and reduce distractions
• You can share these tips with your child’s day care provider, preschool, and others who regularly interact with your child while wearing masks.
Courtesy of the American Academy of Pediatrics.