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  • Writer's pictureMaura Ambrose


The negative social consequences adults have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic has left a lot of people also wondering how COVID has impacted infants and toddlers born into this strange pandemic-world.

Two independent research studies measured language and cognitive outcomes in infants during the COVID-19 pandemic to answer this very question.

The first study by J. Gilkerson and colleagues utilized Language Environment Analysis (LENA).

The LENA project uses a small audio recording device called the “talk pedometer”. The device is worn by an infant (usually in a small pocket of a garment) for a 24-hour period, during which it records audio signals from the human voice.

After the 1-day recording is completed, the data is analyzed using the LENA software to calculate:

1. Number of child vocalizations. 2. Number of adult vocalizations. 3. Number of conversational turns between child and adult(s).

The results of the Gilkerson, et al. study showed a statistically significant decrease in infant vocalizations and child/adult conversational turns, specifically for children born during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is important information, because previous work by Gilkerson et al., (2017, 2018) has shown:

1. Number of conversational turns is positively correlated with standard language measures (more conversational turns = higher language scores). 2. Conversational turns are predictive of longitudinal language outcomes (more conversational turns = better language skills over time). 3. Conversational turns are correlated with brain structure and function (more conversational turns = better overall development).

While it is disheartening to have data confirm what parents had feared, the good news is that the same study followed families beyond the initial data collection, through an intervention program called LENA Start.

At the conclusion of LENA Start, children born during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated improvements in both number of vocalizations and number of conversational turns - proving the benefits of early intervention!

The second COVID-related study was conducted under principal investigator Dr. Sean Deoni at the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab, INSPIRE Center, at Rhode Island Hospital.

This study used neuroimaging, behavioral and cognitive testing and the LENA program to assess:

1. Overall cognitive development. 2. Verbal functioning. 3. Non-verbal functioning.

Data from children tested in the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab in 2021 was significantly lower across all three measures (cognition, verbal functioning, non-verbal functioning) compared to any other year in the study’s 10-year testing period.

Furthermore, the study looked at longitudinal outcomes in 6-month increments. This longitudinal data showed a general downward trend in test scores as the children got older, compared to pre-COVID test subjects.

Additionally, neuroimaging results showed a delay in white matter development for children born during the COVID-19 pandemic, which demonstrates immaturity across all neurodevelopmental systems (language, motor, cognition, etc.).

The Advanced Baby Imaging Lab study found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase in TV exposure and silence with a corresponding decrease in conversational turns between children and adults.

This data further highlights the importance of conversational turns, as the biggest factor associated with infant brain development.

What does this information ultimately mean for us now?

It means that you need to spend some time talking with your child, back-and-forth each day, throughout the day (so do your babysitters).

It means children naturally reach milestones at different rates, and during COVID, children who participated in these two studies scored lower in language and cognitive measures, compared to test subjects pre-COVID.

It does not mean that YOUR child is automatically considered delayed, as some children are right on track, and some are advanced - despite all of the changes they have experienced during the pandemic.

No matter where your child is developmentally, conversational turn-taking will have tremendous benefits for your child's overall development!

If you have a child who is considered a “late talker”, you should consider all of this information when you make the decision to seek help versus the “wait and see” approach.

The problem is, when children do not meet milestones on time, we never know for sure which children will catch up on their own, and which children will continue to fall further behind.

This is the value of early intervention - if we identify a delay early enough, we can help progress the child’s skills and get them on track as quickly as possible.

COVID really complicated things for our little ones, because it robbed them of the natural human interactions they would have had otherwise, replacing them with distance, masks, more screen time, less socialization with peers, more time with overworked and stressed parents, etc.

If you have a concern about your child’s development, do not hesitate to have a professional weigh-in. There are no risks or negative consequences associated with getting your child evaluated - we are here to help!

A Speech Sound & Language Evaluation will provide information. regarding:

1. How your child is performing overall compared to other children their age.

2. Your child’s strengths and areas for improvement.

3. How your child responds to prompts/cues.

4. Recommendations for improvement/continued development of skills.

An evaluation gives you information and resources so that you can decide what is right for your child!

At IGNITE, all parents complete a free consultation prior to an evaluation, to determine whether an evaluation is appropriate and if so, which type. It also allows the parent time to talk about their concerns, and get some initial recommendations from a professional.

If you have concerns about your child’s speech, language or feeding skills, SCHEDULE your free consultation with IGNITE today!

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