Updated: Jul 16, 2021
For many months now, face masks or coverings have been required in almost all indoor public spaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, parents and speech language pathologists may wonder - what will the effect of face coverings have on young children's development of speech and language?
When we speak, our mouths are rich with cues that provide meaningful context for what someone is trying to say, combined with what is actually heard. Since COVID-19 started, think about the number of times you have seen someone lower their mask to repeat something that couldn't be understood. These visual cues from our faces and mouths are especially helpful in environments with background noise where sound may be distorted or muffled.
Research has shown that around six months of age, as young infants are entering what Speech Language Pathologists and researchers call the ‘canonical’ or ‘reduplicated’ babbling stage (e.g.,“babababa”, “mamamamama”), they begin to shift their attention from a speaker’s eyes to a speaker’s mouth. Tuning into a speaker’s mouth helps infants access important information about speech like the timing and movement of the lips, tongue, and teeth.
This access makes the development of speech and language easier (Hillairet de Boisferon et al., 2016), with one study even demonstrating a relationship between visual attention to the
mouth at 12 months and their vocabulary at 18 and 24 months (Tenenbaum et al., 2015).
So then, what happens when we introduce face coverings, especially for children in the crucial years of speech and language development? It is still too early to tell, but one study comparing school-aged children (6-14 years) and adults demonstrated that face masks have a negative effect on processing facial cues in both populations, but more significantly among children (Stajduhar et al., 2021).
While more research is still needed and in the process of coming out, we might be reasonably concerned that face masks could have a similar effect on speech processing, leading to long term consequences in speech and language development.
It might be comforting to remember, however, that face coverings were commonplace in many societies before the pandemic, for religious or cultural reasons, or as protection from pollution and diseases. The children in these societies are still able to develop normal speech and language skills.
There are many ways that parents can continue to support speech and language development in their young children during this time. The main strategy we recommend is to take advantage of face-to-face time at home, where masks are not required. Although screen time is becoming more ingrained in our daily routines due to the nature of the pandemic, dedicated face-to-face interactions with your child provide great opportunities for the rich conversations that are crucial for speech and language development.
What are some of the ways you have been prioritizing face-to-face interactions with your child during the pandemic? Let us know in the comments!
Interested in learning more about this topic and how you can support your child’s speech and language development? Contact us to set up an appointment with one of our registered Speech Language Pathologists!
Hillairet de Boisferon, A., Tift, A.H., Minar, N. J., & Lewkowicz, D. J. (2016). Selective attention
to a talker’s mouth in infancy: Role of audiovisual temporal synchrony and linguistic experience.
Developmental Science. DOI: 10.1111/desc.12381
Stajduhar, A., Ganel, T., Avidan, G., Rosenbaum, R., & Freud, E. (2021). Face Masks Disrupt
Holistic Processing and Face Perception in School-Age Children.
Tenenbaum, E., Sobel, D., Sheinkopf, S., Malle, B., & Morgan, J. (2015). Attention To The
Mouth And Gaze Following In Infancy Predict Language Development. Journal Of Child
Language, 42(6), 1173-1190. DOI: 10.1017/S0305000914000725
Andalusia Speech Therapy has multiple clinics across Ontario and offers virtual therapy to clients anywhere in the world. Contact us more for information.