The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't been easy on families by any stretch of the imagination. Concerns about our children’s physical and mental health have been top of mind. And now, researchers, professionals, and caregivers are noticing and studying the pandemic’s impact on some children reaching their developmental milestones.
New research: The pandemic's effect on childhood development
If you’re not sure whether your child is on track in their development, you are not alone. The pandemic changed so much about our routines and interactions. COVID-19 affected child care options, work and school, our socialization with others, and even our mental health and wellness. Emerging research published in January 2022 showed that as a result of the pandemic, some young children have fallen behind in areas such as social and motor skills. More recently, a study published in October 2022 showed that in Ireland, babies born during the first COVID-19 lockdown are meeting fewer developmental milestones when compared with those born before the pandemic. These "lockdown babies" interacted with fewer people of all ages, and they appeared to be slower to gain skills in social communication, such as waving goodbye and pointing at people or things. Compared with pre-pandemic babies, they were also less likely to be saying one definite and meaningful word at their first birthday.
These babies interacted with fewer people, and they appeared to be slower to gain social communication skills, such as waving goodbye, pointing, and saying their first word.
Dr. Susan Byrne, a pediatric neurologist at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and one of the study's authors, put it this way: “A lot of these babies were at home and not seeing many people leave, meaning there wouldn’t have been anybody to say ‘bye-bye’ to. Babies also tend to point when they see new things that they want, but if they weren’t going outside, they would have already known about everything in their environments.” The study authors have stressed that the differences between pandemic and pre-pandemic babies were small, and there is much that caregivers can do to help their children catch up. Let’s explore how to determine if your toddler is on track, the importance of early intervention, and steps to take if your child needs help. We’ll also share some simple techniques you can begin using at home right now to encourage your toddler’s speech and language development.
How do you know if your child’s development is on track?
The first three years of a child’s life are full of mental and physical growth. This is the prime time to focus on the expected milestones that children should be achieving.
Let’s break down the key milestones to watch for in your toddler’s development from years 1 to 3. Take a look at your child’s age group and the skills expected for that level. If they aren’t meeting these milestones (or any skills prior), it’s likely that they are behind in their communication development.
Milestones for 1-year-olds
At around age 1, toddlers should begin to use some single words. In most cases, a child’s first words are the names of items important to them, or something that helps them request what they need. These may be simple words such as “Mama,” “Dada,” “more,” “milk,” or every toddler’s favorite word: “Mine!” You should begin seeing at least some growth toward single-word production around this age.
Your child should also start to understand more of what you say. Receptive language skills–the ability to understand what is spoken–are as much a part of language development as saying actual words! You may recognize this by your little one reaching or pointing to objects you name, or pausing when you say, “No!”
Milestones for 2-year-olds
By 2 years of age, it’s a good rule of thumb that toddlers should be saying two words paired together. Think phrases such as “I want” or “More cookie.” As a whole, you should be seeing noticeable growth in receptive and expressive vocabulary at this age.
Play development is deeply related to speech and language growth. By age 2, children should be able to play with toys appropriately and more imaginatively. For example, they should use a toy phone for talking, or pretend to cook in a toy kitchen.
Milestones for 3-year-olds
Around 3 years old, your child’s speech should be sounding more mature. They should be able to participate in a simple back-and-forth conversation, asking and answering a variety of questions.
Their speech sound production should also be fairly easy to understand. It’s normal for 3-year-olds to mispronounce some sounds, but as a whole, you should be able to understand what your child says about 80% of the time.
Importance of early intervention
If you notice that your child isn’t meeting any of these expected milestones, it’s important to consider speech therapy. The sooner a child receives speech therapy intervention, the more quickly and easily they can make progress.
Speech and language skills build on one another. So skills that are expected at 1 year of age are necessary in order for a child to reach appropriate skills by 2 years of age. Without early intervention, it’s likely that a child will fall further behind.
The longer a child goes without intervention, the longer their delayed patterns become ingrained. Progress can happen more quickly the sooner that therapy begins.
What to do if you think your child is delayed
If you suspect your child may have a speech or language delay, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed. Having a game plan will help alleviate that stress and open more doors for your child, as well.
Always start with a call to your child’s pediatrician. You can explain your concerns and either speak with them on the phone or make an appointment. Your pediatrician should be able to recommend speech therapists you can contact. It’s likely that your pediatrician will send in a referral for a speech and language evaluation.
But remember this: If you’re ever told, “Your child is still young; let’s just wait and see,” listen to your gut. These early years are crucial. If you are seeing clear signs of a delay, request a speech and language evaluation through your pediatrician. If necessary, you can also ask for a second opinion, or reach out to a speech therapist directly. There is no harm in having a speech and language evaluation done earlier rather than later. The sooner you have more information on your child’s development, the better!
How you can help your child talk
It’s true that speech therapy is vital for children who are delayed in their speech and language development. But you may not realize the important role you play in your child’s communication as well. Here are a few easy changes you can make at home to help your little one grow their communication abilities.
Model speech by using new vocabulary words and grammatically correct sentences. Children learn best through hearing their caregivers speak to them!
Give your child choices when possible. Providing a choice of answers to a question may help children verbalize their answer better than with an open-ended question. For example, “Do you want blueberries or crackers?” may yield a better response from your child than “What do you want to eat?”
Use communication temptations with your child. Toddlers are more likely to communicate when they are motivated by something they see. Find a favorite toy, snack, or activity, and help them request it!
Learn more about how you can communicate with your baby and encourage your toddler to talk with our online course, Small Talk. You’ll get loads of simple, practical strategies to help your little one meet their communication milestones.
If you are realizing that your child may need intervention, try to see this realization as a positive. You’re listening to your gut, taking the right steps, and getting your child the help they need. Remember, the earlier your child receives speech therapy support, the better the outcome. So take a deep breath and move forward. Your child is lucky to have you in their corner!