Post Pandemic Speech Delay in Children: What Can Parents Do

by Kamal Singh

It's time to accept that a new phase of the pandemic is right around the corner. While it's difficult for adults to continue wearing masks, and maintain social distancing protocols, the pandemic is taking a heavier toll on children.

The "new normal" for most infants and toddlers include increased screen time, interaction with immediate family members, and restricted time outdoors. Millions of toddlers have spent the crucial years of learning indoors without much interaction with friends, family, and teachers.

How has the Pandemic Hampered Child Speech & Language?

You may say that your child is spending time on their tablet or iPad playing educational games. But, the truth is that children who began school in 2020 needed more support as compared to children who started the previous years.

According to the reports, the now-toddlers, who began attending pre-school in 2020 needed additional support in the areas of speech, language, and communication. The increased screen time coupled with restricted real-life interactions significantly affected their progress towards age-appropriate speech-language milestones.

55 out of the 57 schools surveyed by the Education Endowment Foundation in 2021 said they were "extremely concerned" about the children's language & communication skills development. They also stated that they were very concerned about the child's social, emotional, and personal development. These are all skills that depend upon the speech, language, and communication abilities of a child.

Why Should You be Concerned?

First, we would like to tell you that if you have a toddler now, and you have been trying to help augment their language & communication skills, you are already doing a great job! You have done your best to shield your child from infections during the pandemic. The COVID 19 pandemic has reduced the number of accessible activities for parents & children. It has been a challenge for all doting parents across the globe.

Sadly, social distancing and quarantine protocols have reduced a child's exposure to new experiences and new vocabulary. For example, a child born right before or during the pandemic may not have experienced trips to the zoo, park, or farms. They do not know the words that we would typically use during these trips. It can result in temporary speech delay.

The children may not have visited their grandparents or other family members during the first 2-years of their life. They may have missed out on learning new interactions and new vocabulary while meeting friends & family members. Children are experiencing noticeable delays in speech & language development due to limited exposure to new environments and experiences.

It is a cause for concern since a 2 to 3-years-old child’s vocabulary can predict their performance at school.

How Have Masks Affected Children’s Communication Skills?

While adults should be wearing masks around children due to the rise in the number of new COVID 19 cases, it may deter speech development in children. 1 in 5 preschool-aged children have glue ear. It is a middle ear infection that can be painful. However, glue ear also affects a child's hearing.

The lack of immediate access to pediatricians and ear-nose-throat (ENT) experts has caused several children to spend a prolonged time with temporary hearing loss during the pandemic. In such cases, it is crucial for children to see how lips move to create sound.

Face masks have not only created a barrier to speech development, but they have also deterred a child from reading facial expressions. Facial expressions are crucial to understanding the meaning and intention behind every word. Masks have contributed to noticeable mislearning and misunderstanding among children. Constant use of masks while interacting with children has also impacted a child's social and emotional skills.

What Can Parents Do To Help After the Pandemic?

As soon as the restrictions ease up, seize the opportunity to take your child to the park, zoo, aquariums, and nearby farms. Give them the chance to learn new words, emotions, and interactions. If your child is older than 3-years, you can apply the same principles. However, hold conversations with them about topics that interest them.

Listed below are a few tips and strategies to help your child's speech-language development post-pandemic –

Restrict Screen Time

First things first! Once there’s the scope for taking your child out to meet new people, reduce their screen time. It can be a difficult task, especially if your child has been spending their days glued to a screen. You need to cut down their screen-time 10-minutes at a time and replace it with interactive activities that your child enjoys.

Increase Real-Life Interactions

Check with the local petting zoos, aquariums, city farms, and gardens. Take your child to new places; let them experience new adventures.

Describe what you see. Make and mimic animal noises. Focus on your child’s reactions. Laugh with them and spend time with them.

If there’s a local park where children go to play, take your child there. Let your child figure out how to share, talk, and interact with other children their age.

Offer New Experiences

Whether it is introducing them to playgroups or setting up playdates at home, you need to expose your child to new experiences. Of course, you must ensure that the parents and their children are healthy and not infected.

Once the new wave of infections dies down, get in touch with the moms in your area to set up playdates for your child.

Read With Them

Replace a significant part of their screen time with reading time. If your child is old enough to point, say "yes/no" and name a few colors - begin reading with them.

Pick children’s books with interactive features. Some books have music, while others may have pop-ups and coloring options. Take the opportunity to read with your child. Ask them simple questions. Allow them to point to the characters. Encourage them to color whenever a page calls for it.

Talk To Them

Make it a practice to narrate your movements and tasks across the house. You may be doing the dishes, watering the plants, or teaching the dog how to fetch.

Irrespective of what you are doing, describe it to them using child-friendly words.

Practice this while preparing a bath, bathing your child, feeding them, or playing with them. Narrate their activities so they know the exact words for the actions.

Teach Functional Words For Communication

If your child doesn't yet know enough names of colors and shapes, it's alright! Even a 3-year-old can learn that when they go back to school.

What your child really needs is a vocabulary of communicating words. These can include common words we use daily, such as "more," "hungry," "thirsty," "want," "hurt," "stop," and "go."

Developing communication skills can begin with small steps at home. Teach your child functional words while playing with them, feeding them, or bathing them.

Describe Speech Sounds

When you are saying a new word, describe its sound. It may sound weird, but it can help a child distinguish between the "/p/," "/b/," and "/d/" sounds.

For example, you say, "the dog is going for a walk. D-for dog." Or, "we are going to have nuggets for dinner. Nugget-T-T-T"

It is common for children up to the age of 4 to confuse different consonant sounds. This simple exercise will help them learn the correct pronunciation as well as their spellings.

If your child continues to show signs of speech delay, speak to an SLP or speech therapist ASAP.  Gather authentic information on speech delay in children. Avoid the common pitfalls.  You may also consider practicing speech therapy exercises for speech delay in toddlers at home.

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