Do COVID-era Babies “Talk” Less?


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New findings reveal that children born during the COVID-19 pandemic may be at risk of language delays. They produce significantly fewer vocalizations and experience significantly fewer serve-and-return interactions than their pre-COVID peers.  

Louisville, Colo. — Researchers at the national nonprofit LENA have found that children born nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic vocalized significantly less and experienced fewer back-and-forth conversations with adults than those born before the pandemic.

In other words, COVID babies “talk” less. That means they produce fewer coos, grunts, babbles, and other precursors to speech, indicating they may be at greater risk of experiencing language delays.

To arrive at the findings, the researchers analyzed home language data from 630 infants aged 0-9 months: 494 pre-COVID babies and 136 COVID-era babies. For both groups, researchers used LENA’s technology to track the number of vocalizations children produced and the number of conversational turns they experienced:

  • On average, children from the COVID-era sample produced significantly fewer vocalizations than their pre-COVID peers (56th percentile compared to 70th percentile).
  • They also experienced significantly fewer serve-and-return interactions, or conversational turns (54th percentile versus 63rd  percentile).

“This analysis contributes to emergent evidence out of Brown, Columbia, and elsewhere that babies born during the pandemic are experiencing developmental delays,” said Dr. Jill Gilkerson, LENA’s Chief Research and Evaluation Officer. “The bottom line is that infants are vocalizing less and experiencing fewer conversational turns, putting them at risk of missing out on the many positive outcomes linked to high levels of interactive talk early in life.”

Prior research from a peer-reviewed 10-year longitudinal study LENA conducted shows that conversational turns between adults and very young children are one of the most predictive metrics of child outcomes and school readiness. Conversational turns have also been linked to improved social-emotional development and increased cortical growth in language and social processing regions of the brain, among other benefits.

In the present analysis, LENA’s researchers also used national Area Deprivation Index (ADI) measurements to look at the relationship between families’ socioeconomic status (SES) and children’s language experience. The ADI is a neighborhood-level measure of SES that incorporates income, education, employment, and housing quality.

Children from the COVID-era sample were lower across all measurements than their pre-COVID peers at nearly every ADI level. However, the differences were greatest among children from families in the lowest SES quartile:

  • There was a statistically significant decrease of 17 percentile points in conversational turn rates between pre-COVID and COVID-era children, from the 54th to 37th percentile.
  • The same holds true for child vocalizations among the lowest SES group, where the average decreased from the 63rd to the 43rd percentile.

These findings from LENA support a growing body of evidence that babies born during the COVID pandemic are, on average, experiencing developmental delays. Research from the Advanced Baby Imaging Lab at Brown University and from the COMBO (COVID-19 Mother Baby Outcomes) consortium at Columbia University show reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance.

“The differences we’ve observed in child vocalizations and conversational turns are an important piece of this puzzle,” said Dr. Gilkerson, “However, the difference in conversational turns can be significantly reduced with focused interventions.”

LENA will host a live webinar to discuss these findings on March 31, 2022, at 1 p.m. ET. Dr. Jill Gilkerson, LENA’s Chief Research and Evaluation Officer, will be joined by Dr. Sean Deoni of Brown University’s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab and Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, Vice President of National Policy at Start Early. Register at  

About LENA

LENA is a national nonprofit on a mission to transform children’s futures through early talk technology and data-driven programs. Used by researchers, clinicians, community organizations, and early childhood education organizations all over the world, LENA technology measures a child’s language environment and provides vital feedback to parents and professionals. LENA envisions a world where every child benefits from positive relationships full of responsive interactions.