The topic of mask-wearing is a pretty divisive one across the board, but it’s drawing particular ire among parents who are concerned about the effects it could have on the speech development of young children and babies – and a recent report is only adding fuel to that fire.
Mask mandates are currently in effect in many Democrat-led cities, such as New York City and Washington, D.C., and their effects are only beginning to be understood.
The director of the Speech and Learning Institute in North Palm Beach, Florida, speech language pathologist Jaclyn Theek, reported that her clinic has seen a 364 percent rise in patients who were toddlers and babies when the pandemic got underway. Before the pandemic began, just 5 percent of their patients were in this age range; that percentage is now 20 percent.
Theek said that there may be a lack of research to support the idea right now, but she firmly believes that mask-wearing is playing a role.
She said: “There’s no research out there yet saying that this could be causing speech and language delays. But, most definitely, I’m sure it’s a factor. It’s very important that kids do see your face to learn, so they’re watching your mouth.”
Babies begin learning how to speak at around 8 months old by reading lips. Once lip-reading emerges, it then becomes a child’s default mode of processing speech when comprehension is difficult, such as when there is background noise during speech or a person is speaking with an accent.
Studies also show that babies who lip-read more end up with better language skills when they are older, suggesting masks could hinder babies’ ability to acquire speech and language. When lips and faces are covered with masks, some kids may be able to simply work around it, but others struggle to form proper speech on the usual timetable.
Theek characterized many of these children as being “speech-delayed.” She added that they are seeing lots of things that “look like autism,” with kids not making word attempts or communicating with their families at all. And while it may take time, researchers should eventually be able to draw a stronger link between mask wearing and delayed speech.
A report by WPBF 25 News, a West Palm Beach ABC affiliate, shared the story of a Diego Santos, a young boy who was born perfectly healthy near the beginning of the pandemic and now attends speech therapy twice a week.
His father, Gregg, discussed how they would go out to walk in the neighborhood and not encounter anyone out and about as everyone stayed in due to the pandemic. He believes it is this social isolation, combined with the fact that everyone was wearing masks, that spurred his son’s speech delays.
He said: “He would just ramble, baby ramble. Certain words that are key did not flow, so that began to raise a red flag.”
Some of the speech milestones parents should be looking out for in their toddlers include being able to say around five to ten words by their first birthday and 25 to 50 words by 18 months old. By the time they turn 2, kids should be able to say hundreds of words. It’s important to get help right away as early intervention can make a big difference when it comes to speech delays in children.
You might not be able to get around wearing masks in public, but there is plenty you can do at home to ensure your child’s speech gets off to the best start possible. Therapists say it’s simply a matter of interacting more with your kids. This means turning off the phone or TV when you’re at home with your children and reading to them, playing with them, and singing with them to provide them with plenty of opportunities to observe your speech.
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