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Out of the mouths of babes

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WORLD Radio - Out of the mouths of babes

New study shows babies born during the pandemic don’t talk as much


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NICK EICHER, HOST: Up next: the impact of COVID-19 and how the response to it has affected the very youngest Americans.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: The pandemic disrupted everyone’s life to some degree over the past couple of years. And scientists are still trying to figure out the impact it’s had—and the impact it’s still having—on children.

Even more, new evidence suggests babies and toddlers face new developmental hurdles.

EICHER: Studies show that they are talking less and could face more reading and academic challenges going forward.

Joining us now to unpack these new findings is Dr. Rosemary Stein. She’s a pediatrician and has been for the past 25 years and is the director of the International Family Clinic in Burlington, North Carolina. She is also the author of the book Who Needs a Village? It’s a Mom Thing.

REICHARD: Doctor, good morning!

ROSEMARY STEIN, GUEST: Good morning! I’m so glad we get to speak about this very impactful topic.

REICHARD: You say that at your clinic, you’ve been seeing strange behavior in children since COVID restrictions started. What do you mean by that?

STEIN: Well, they’re not engaging. So they’re not looking at their friends' eyes. They’re not looking at the parents’ or adults’ eyes when they’re talking. They mumble to themselves and they say things that nobody can understand what they're trying to communicate, but then they get very frustrated because nobody understands them. So it's like we're sparking our own autism in our younger children.

REICHARD: Forbes had an interesting article recently pointing to a couple of studies of COVID-era babies that used a fascinating piece of technology. It is called a “talk pedometer.” That kind of sounds like a Fitbit for your mouth! What exactly is it?

STEIN: Well, to tell you the truth, I had not heard about it before. Because as a pediatrician, I just sit and listen to the interaction the child has, because the mom can tell me he's not speaking well, but I can't assess that in a short amount of time. So I just let the child interact with me and talk. And so I have my own talk pedometer in my head. I didn't realize that we were putting recording devices on children and seeing the turns of the conversations, but that does make some sense.

But what it amounts to is that you can tell the babbling or the speaking with few or little words that a child is doing. So there'll be a little interval when you talk to a child, there'll be a little interval and then the child talks or babbles back. And so if that child is not engaging, or has increased risk of let's say, autism, that child will have a longer interval or will not respond. It's very unusual for a child, let's say even six to seven months, if you talk to him or you engage with them, they will respond if not with a noise, with a facial gesture. And so children today are not responding at the pre-COVID level, let's say. So it's taking a little longer, it's taking me longer to engage with them. I really emphasize being able to look at the patient's face, having him look at me. I try not to wear masks with my patients so that we engage and they can trust me. But that little turnaround time that they're talking about when they talk about the talk pedometer is what you can capture with this lag in being able to communicate with a toddler or even an infant.

REICHARD: You know I wonder about face masks that have been in use over the past couple of years, it’s been tougher to see people’s faces; I know I can’t hear people when I can’t lip read really, babies need to read facial expressions, they need to see our faces. How big of a role do you think masks played in these delays?

STEIN: I think a lot and the fact that almost all infants, when they're in the company of adults, many of these adults have masks on. And so the baby cannot gauge facial expressions—just like you said—can't understand the words or even understand whether it's a well-intentioned adult or maybe somebody that you should be cautious about. All of these things the child is picking up on—even to the age of six months. The first thing a baby does is they turn around when they go into a new environment. They turn around and they look at you because they’re trying to figure things out. This is all a learning process to them, but with all of our faces being covered up, I would say that 50% or less of the learning experience for your child is going to be there.

REICHARD: What do parents, family members, and teachers need to do to help children develop these communication skills and perhaps make up for lost time?

STEIN: The first thing is that we need to disengage from our phones. While we're on our phones and on our electronic devices, we're not with our children, and our children need us more now than ever. So that’s the first thing is dedicate that time to foster your family and your children directly, to speak with them, to make sure that you're talking directly into their faces, and have them respond to you. And when they're a little bit speech delayed, you work on that with them and seek consultation with your pediatrician, if needed. But you are the best speech therapists, mom and dads. So that would be the first thing.

And then, you know, just around the table—make sure you have an 'around the table,' even if it's a toddler in an infant seat—so that you're all engaged and you're talking and they can see all the expressions around the table as you do. These are all the things that we have left behind with COVID that will be very necessary for our children.

It's not as important to me what happens outside of the home as what happens inside the home. So if we know that these disturbances, let's say, are happening outside of the home, then let's try to make our home the most normal possible. Look at magazines and books of how children were raised maybe in the 1950s and 1960s sitting at the table talking to each other, engaging, and you will bring back that time. He or she will use all of their experiences to put them together to be a healthy child. But mom and dads, it's really going to be dependent on how much you engage with this child.

REICHARD: We’ve been talking with Dr. Rosemary Stein. Our thanks to the Christian Medical and Dental Associations for connecting us. And Dr. thanks so much for your time!

STEIN: Thank you. It’s a pleasure!


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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