Speech, Language, COVID… OH MY!


We are all tired of the big “C” topic at this point. COVID is something it seems like the world will never forget, even though we are starting to return to a little bit of what we think of as normalcy. During these difficult two years we have seen: an increase in unemployment, schools/daycare shutting down, universal masking, and list goes on and on. We all have suffered from some sort of cabin fever or emotional breakdown over the past years… but what about our children? As a mom, who also delivered during the pandemic, I am consistently wondering how my son’s childhood/development will differ from mine and even his 5 year old cousin. Some children were lucky enough to have parents or other family members to stay home with them. But what about the kiddos whose parent’s rely on daycare? Or the public school system?

Let’s take a step back and think about a child under the age of 2. Are they born with the ability to walk? Speak? Play? No, because none of these things are innate, they are learned and these skills are molded by their environment (parents, siblings, TV, Books, Toys, etc). So let’s take a specific look at speech and language development (my personal scope of practice). A child learns sounds and language from a model (you!). They associate words/actions with meaning over time by PRACTICE AND REPETITION. So, let’s do a little math. Let’s look at a family who works 9-5. Mom needs to drop baby Johnny off at daycare by 8:30 am to make it work. Johnny, Mom, and Dad have 2 hours together if they wake up at 6:30 am. Mom picks up Johnny by 5:30 pm and is home at 6:00 pm. Johnny goes to bed at 9:00 pm so adding time in the car that is 3.5 hours after work his parents spend with their son so 5.5 hours total before bedtime on a weekday. They sleep in till 7 am on weekends and go to bed at 9 pm which is 28 hours of time together between Saturday and Sunday. So, total time awake and together to offer language stimulation, speech modeling, and play is 55.5 hours. Well, Johnny is at daycare almost 10 hours a day 5 days a week coming out to a total of… 50 hours. Almost 50% of his time where his development is molded by his environment is away from you. And during 2020-2021 his teachers and peers at daycare were required to wear a mask…. am I making sense now? How is Johnny supposed to learn speech development when he can’t see how sounds are produced? How is he supposed to pick up on social cues when he isn’t able to see his friend’s face to know he is mad that Johnny took his toy? Or see the eagerness on his teacher’s face when he says “Please”  for the first time? This is just one example. We have to remember about museums/parks/aquariums being closed (wonderful places to work on all aspects of development), lack of funds due to unemployment, and the list goes on and on.

I have worked at our local children’s hospital for 2 years as a speech therapist. In our field, we are driven by what we call evidence-based research. Earlier this week I was emailed an article that I found to be quite interesting. This study was completed by Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital. This study began in 2011, and its purpose was to neurodevelopment in children. They utilized scores from The Mullen Scales of Early Learning and compared children born between 2011-2019 to our now termed “COVID BABIES”, children born between the years 2020-2021. This assessment looks at 5 aspects of development: 1. Fine motor skills 2. Gross motor skills 3. Visual Reception 4. Receptive Language 5. Expressive Language. It should be noted that children included in this study were considered to be full term, with appropriate APGAR scores and birth weight. Some maternal conditions would also disqualify a child from the study.

Unfortunately, what they found was quite concerning. Children who were born in 2020-2021 are on averaging scoring lower in the areas of cognition and language. Most language/cognitive assessments typically find that a score of 100 is the average but anywhere from 85-115 is also considered to be within “normal” ranges. Results from this study indicated that not only are COVID babies testing below the normal range(somewhere in the 70’s range) but that this is their “mean” or average. The article seems to suggest that these children, COVID BABIES born from 2020-2020, are scoring lower due to some environmental impact (COVID). It also suggested that boys and lower socioecomnic families were affected the most.

Is your head spinning yet? It’s ok, research articles have that affect on everyone. Now, we have to remember this is only 1 study done in 1 state. Each state handled COVID policies differently across the United States. What we can really take away from this study is that more research needs to be done and that these children are fundamentally different because their environment was different. The good thing is, now we know! And we can begin working with these babies now to improve average and get them back on the right track.