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The Effects of Masks on Speech and Language Development for Infants and Children

Article Written By: Victoria Mannella-Gupta

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become accustomed to wearing face masks. We had to learn to recognize faces, identify people’s emotions, or understand speech without seeing people’s mouths. But how do masks effect speech and language development for children who are learning to speak, understand, and gather information from faces?


This is an important subject, as we need masks to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but as Speech-Language Pathologists, we rely on our faces to teach our clients communication. It is important for Speech-Language Pathologists to address any underlying problems and concerns regarding face masks while highlighting their importance as protective equipment against infection.


Masks can cause communication to breakdown because we rely heavily on people’s mouths. For speech and language development, there are reasons to not be concerned, IF we ensure a rich communicative environment at home when masks are not worn. For children who already have difficulty with communication, it can be difficult to understand when people are wearing masks. However, there are important things we can do to make it easier for them.


Reasons To Not Be Concerned*

  • Masks are not worn at home, so infants and children likely have a lot of opportunity to hear language and watch faces.

  • We also rely on eye movements, body language, and gestures to gather information to communicate.

  • The brains of infants and young children are developing at a rapid pace, so it is possible that they can learn to use the information that is available to them, even in masked faces.

  • There is also research that shows young children can learn language in carefully selected interactive online book reading and video chat sessions.

  • Face coverings are not a new phenomenon. People may cover their face for religious and cultural reasons, or there are children growing up in other countries that have worn face masks to protect themselves against other diseases or pollution prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Children growing up in these societies are just as successful in learning language and communication.


However, we still need to ensure that infants and young children are receiving enough information for communication when we are wearing a mask. This is especially for children who spend most of their day around adults who are wearing masks.


Tips for Communicating While Wearing a Mask**

  • Get the child's attention before talking

  • Ask what you can do to make communication easier for both of you

  • 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 a voice amplifier

  • Use eyes, hands, body language, and changes in tone of voice to add information to speech

  • Ask the child if they understood and repeat words or sentences when necessary

  • Reduce noise, reduce distractions, or move to a quiet place

  • It is important to note, that without visual cues, it may be difficult for people at any age (especially with hearing loss or communication difficulties) to understand speech with a face mask. Besides obviously stopping the spread of COVID-19, there are other positives to take away from mask-wearing.

What can we conclude?

  1. Face masks help stop the spread of COVID-19

  2. As long as children are receiving a rich communicative environment at home when masks are not worn, research does not suggest there is cause for developmental concern

  3. Face masks can cause communication breakdowns

  4. Use the tips listed above to help communicate with infants and young children while wearing a mask

  5. There are other important communication skills learned through mask wearing (see below)***

Children learn that the upper face (eyebrows, eyes, and upper cheeks) are also important for communication.


Children learn the importance of non-verbal communication, such as body language, during communication.


Children and their communication partner learn the important of attending and facing their communication partner directly.


Children may learn how to fix communication breakdowns such as talking louder, slower, or articulating their speech more when they are not understood.


Children have learned communication skills through telecommunication, which are important for their future with the continuous technological advancements.



At Empower Communication, safety is our number one priority. We offer a variety of therapy options, including virtual therapy, in-person therapy outdoors, or in-person at our clinic. If you believe your child is struggling with communication, please do not hesitate to reach out to us to discuss the best therapy option for you and your child!



References

* Yeung, H., Curtin, S., & Werker, J. (2021). Face-mask use and language development: Reasons to worry? Retrieved from: https://rsc-src.ca/fr/voix-de-la-src/face-mask-use-and-language-development-reasons-to-worry

** Speech-Language and Audiology Canada (SAC). Wearing a mask changes communication for everyone. Retrieved from:

https://www.sacoac.ca/sites/default/files/resources/General_Public_Masks_Info_Sheet_EN_1.pdf *** Mheidly, N., Fares, M. Y., Zalzale, H., & Fares, J. (2020). Effect of Face Masks on Interpersonal Communication During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in public health, 8, 582191.

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