Babies and Toddlers6 MINUTE READ

Has COVID-19 affected language development among children?

Raising a child is hard work. But raising a child during COVID-19… that’s a whole different story.

It has been a challenging few years filled with lots of change, especially for caregivers and young children.

Ongoing safety protocols and preventive policies have been absolutely necessary for public health and safety, yet they’ve had some potentially disruptive effects on the daily lives and routines of our little ones.

Schools and daycares were shuttered. Mask wearing, social distancing, and the use of virtual classrooms became part of the new normal. And with fewer outlets for entertainment, parents and caregivers often relied on what they had at home to keep their little ones occupied to placate a bored or frustrated toddler.

Not surprisingly, many questions have arisen about whether COVID-19 will have downstream effects on our kiddo's language and cognitive development. After all, toddlers learn language by absorbing their environment and interacting with loved ones and peers. Could reduced interactions and stimulation have long-term repercussions on our early language learners?

Some of the first studies have emerged to answer these questions. But first, let’s explore a few of the impacts COVID-19 may have had on language and communication development.

Possible impacts of COVID-19 on language growth

Researchers have examined a few possible impacts that COVID-19 may have had on a child’s cognitive and language development:

  • Social interactions: Healthy social interactions are essential for language development. With schools and daycares closed, and social distancing measures in place, many children experienced decreased opportunities for meaningful social interactions. Talking with peers and loved ones is a critical component of pragmatic development, including conversational skills, turning taking, understanding the implicit meaning behind words, and more.

  • Mask wearing: While wearing masks is essential for minimizing viral spread and keeping people safe, they can also obscure the non-verbal social cues provided through facial expressions.

  • Passive screen time: With limited daycare available, many parents have had the impossible task of working full-time while caregiving, including monitoring older children as they attend virtual school as well as caring for infants and toddlers. It was a challenging task to meet the demands of a job while keeping kids occupied. Tablets and televisions became a reliable and safe way to keep young children from going stir crazy. However, many studies have shown that an over reliance on passive screen time and media consumption can impact language development when it’s supplementing for meaningful interactions.

Research: The impact of COVID-19 on early childhood development

The long-term impact of COVID-19 on language development is not yet known, but one longitudinal study conducted in Rhode Island examined the cognitive scores of 672 children in 2020 and 2021 compared to the preceding decade (2011-2019).

The study found that:

Children born during the pandemic have significantly reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic.”

To determine their findings, the researchers used the Mullen Scales of Early Learning, which is a standardized developmental test for children aged 3-60 months that measures scores across five key areas: gross motor, fine motor, visual receptive, expressive language, and receptive language. For children born during the pandemic, results on the Mullen Scale corresponded to an average IQ score of 78, which represented a 22 point drop from the previous average. The effect was larger in boys than in girls.

Their research indicated that these findings were not a result of parents and children with a history of positive COVID-19, as those with the virus were excluded from the study.

While this study was funded by the US National Institutes of Health, it’s important to know that it is still awaiting peer review. The study also questioned whether these effects were temporary or long-term:

“What is unclear from our data, however, is if observed declines or impairments are temporary and will normalize as employment and school closures are lifted and children return to pre-pandemic levels of play and interaction, and family financial insecurity and mental health challenges subside.

So with all that said, what can be done?

Another study provides some key insight. It demonstrated that caregivers who were able to frequently interact and spend more quality time with their children during lockdown actually saw big vocabulary gains.

This recent study was conducted in March 2021 and looked at the behavior and linguistic competence of more than 1,700 single language children between the ages of 8 to 36 months. They collected data from 13 countries throughout the course of the first COVID-19 lockdowns. Researchers focused on these children’s linguistic development and, in particular, their vocabulary.

To achieve their goals, they evaluated the amount of time children spent during the pandemic on certain activities (i.e. shared book reading; free play, singing, outdoor activities, passive screen exposure, etc), and then assessed how time spent on each activity correlated to vocabulary development.

The researchers actually found that when parents frequently interacted with their children, took time to play with them, and decreased passive screen time (i.e., watching cartoons), there was a significant increase in vocabulary development during the pandemic when compared to pre-COVID norms. Children actually learned more language during lockdown in this study than had been predicted.

This quality time not only established valuable bonding moments between parents and children, but created an active language-learning environment rather than the passive exposure to language that happens when using a tablet.

“This large-scale multinational study offers a unique window into associations between features of the home environment and children’s longitudinal vocabulary development during the first COVID-19 lockdown,” the paper reads. “Taken together, the results suggest that who you are (your education, your child’s age or sex) does not predict vocabulary development as much as what you did with your child during lockdown.”

Researchers had anticipated that due to daycares and preschools shutting down, certain socioeconomic factors like parental education levels would affect vocabulary in young children. However, their research indicated that parental education was less of a factor than parental interaction. Across socioeconomic backgrounds and education, parents who spent more time with their children participating in activities, such as reading and play, saw an increase in language acquisition.

What does all this mean?

Children learn language through play. And it’s clear that the same methods to enhance language development hold true before, during, and certainly post-pandemic.

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