My youngest son recently turned 2, which means half of his life has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The shelter-in-place rules and COVID-19 precautions my family have taken meant that he couldn't have playdates, see his friends at nursery, or go to many of the fun toddler social places — like indoor playgrounds, children's museums, or tumbling classes — for a year.
While he has adjusted like many kids (they are so much more flexible than I am!), I still wonder if he is missing out on some key developmental milestones — specifically, language development. For the most part, he seems on track, even using some three-word sentences like "Daddy cutting apple" and "Mama, my Lightyear!" when his brother steals his favorite Toy Story toy. To find out if shelter-in-place is affecting his language development, POPSUGAR spoke with experts to learn more and see what parents can do to help.
Is Shelter-in-Place Affecting My Toddler's Language Development?
While this depends on your family, your child, and your situation, it's most likely that shelter-in-place will not significantly affect your child's language development. "Toddlers are hardwired to develop language skills. They will find a way because it is that important to their survival," said Heba Di Giacomo, a parenting coach for multicultural families and families living abroad with Oxygen Parenting, LLC, who has been studying language development in children for over 14 years.
And while the path may look different, your child will still be moving forward in their language journey. Tovah Klein, PhD, director of the Barnard College Center For Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive, explained that language development is happening all the time for your toddler — whenever you're chatting with them, in fact, or even when they're watching TV! The most important thing is that they have an open home environment. "If a toddler is surrounded by loving attentive parents and possibly other family members, language development should proceed as usual if the child is encouraged to play, toddle about, and interact with others in the home," said Laurie Hollman, PhD, a psychoanalyst on modern parent-child relationships and an award-winning author.
However, that's not to say that there haven't been some changes and challenges since the pandemic — with two having particular effect on language development. "The first is the lack of socialization with peers and language models in classes and daycares," said Jocelyn M. Wood, speech language pathologist who works with infants and toddlers. This means your child isn't hearing what language sounds like in different contexts, since they're only talking with their parents or family. "In an ideal situation, toddlers would be both running around and exploring different environments (home, park, school, friends' house), which naturally exposes them to new words and practicing opportunities, and [allows them to] have opportunities to practice speaking with a variety of people," said Di Giacomo.
"The other huge change, of course, is masks," Wood told POPSUGAR. "Young children who are learning to speak rely on looking at the speaker's mouth to see what is happening so they can emulate the sounds. When mouths are covered, children lose out on a crucial part of their speech sound development." It's not impossible to get around — your child is still interacting with you, which is a big part of language development — but it certainly changes how they're approaching language in the outside world.
What Should I Watch For to Know My Toddler's Language Is Developing?
The good news is toddlers are resilient, so your child will probably be fine. However, if your toddler isn't using words, gestures, tone of voice, and body language (like pointing and eye contact), this could be a cause for concern, Dr. Hollman said. "By 15 months, your child should point to things that they often see in their environment for you to name, and by 18 months they should initiate these names on their own," she said. "Sometimes verbs will be used. This is slow and gradual with trial and error, and frequently with 'baby talk,' which is fine and warm in the telling."
Also be aware of regressing or not meeting milestones. "Parents should be concerned if their child has not shown any growth over a three-month period of time, has no first words by 15 months old, or has speech sound errors that impact their ability to communicate," said Wood. If you're worried, speak with your pediatrician or your toddler's teacher, said Dr. Klein.
How Can Parents Help Encourage a Toddler's Language Development?
There are many things parents can do to encourage speech development at home with their toddlers, according to our experts. "Any chance you have to spend some time outside, do it (within reason and safely, of course)!" said Di Giacomo. "Try to be intentional about exploring new environments, if possible, and talk with your toddler a lot during that time. Try a different park, or drive/walk around a different neighborhood." Also make use of video chats with family and friends, and read lots of books — any way to explore something new and try out different words or accents.
It's also important to use language to communicate with your toddler throughout the day. "At mealtimes, for example, talk with your toddler about what they did yesterday or what you're planning to do today," said Dr. Klein. "Talk with your toddler when you're getting ready for the day, saying things like, 'Would you like to wear the red shirt or the striped one?'" Adapt this into your playtime with your kids, too — any meaningful verbal exchange will help their language development. "All of this provides a language-rich environment that supports toddler learning," Dr. Klein said.
What Should I Do If My Toddler Still Isn't Talking?
Talk to your child's doctor! "A language or speech specialist or therapist could do an at-home evaluation to see if for some reason your child is either slower than usual but will come along to language at their own pace, or is demonstrating something called selective mutism. This requires professional help," said Dr. Hollman.
But don't forget that toddlers (and older children) are very adaptable, and they will likely make it through this in better shape than we, the parents, do! "On the bright side, children are resilient and learn quickly," said Wood. "Although the impact of the pandemic is unquestionable, a child's brain plasticity will help them to quickly overcome these difficulties."
Stay calm, keep the conversations flowing, and everything should work out just fine. Pretty soon, you'll be secretly wishing your toddler wasn't talking quite so much, yet still relishing every minute.