Research Roundup: Maternal depression and paternal parentese in the context of COVID


Research Roundup

We like to say that parents and other caregivers are the “secret sauce” when it comes to enhancing children’s cognitive and language development through positive interactions. At times — during a prolonged global pandemic, for instance — conditions aren’t always ripe for those positive interactions to take place.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of psychologists at the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience has been keeping tabs on the well-being of over 1,000 U.S. families with young children. The wealth of data that’s come out of their bi-weekly surveys, called the RAPID-EC Project, paints a dark picture:

  • When the pandemic began, 1 in 4 families reported material hardship. That rate rose to a high of more than 1 in 3 in late 2020.
  • As material hardship has increased, emotional well-being has suffered. For caregivers, that means depression, anxiety, and stress. For children, it means behavioral problems linked to fear, anxiety, and fussiness.
  • More than 1 in 3 female caregivers has either had to leave the workforce or reduce their work hours. Well over half of them said they couldn’t afford to do so. Emotional distress followed suit.
  • Across all income levels, caregivers have spent their stimulus payments almost exclusively on basic needs. In addition, more than 1 in 4 families reported overdue debt or unpaid bills.

That’s the context around which we wanted to consider a couple of recent studies about children’s early language environments. These studies were conducted before the pandemic began. However, considering them alongside what the RAPID-EC Project has revealed puts their results in even starker relief.

“Speaking of State of Mind: Maternal Mental Health Predicts Children’s Home Language Environment and Expressive Language”

In a paper published in the Journal of Child Language, researchers at Arizona State University and Brigham Young University collected data from 265 families to test the hypothesis that maternal depression is linked to lower adult word counts and conversational turn rates. Operating from the standpoint that positive interactions help foster children’s language development, they set out to find links among depression, anxiety, and a reduction in those positive interactions.

After standardizing by age (the average age of the children was just under 18 months) and controlling for socioeconomic status (income and maternal education were diverse among participants), the researchers found that depression — but not, interestingly, anxiety — was in fact associated with reduced words and turns.

To facilitate the study, mothers completed the Center for Epidemiological Studies Short Depression Scale to measure their depression and the Penn State Worry Questionnaire to measure anxiety. They used LENA devices to measure their child’s home language environment continuously over the course of an entire day.

“Parents are a vital source of language exposure, repetition, contextual support, and scaffolding,” the authors write. “Thus, when parents are less able to be involved in this process, children may struggle in their language development.”

“How Chatty Are Daddies? An Exploratory Study of Infants’ Language Environments”

Researchers at the University of Washington looked at data on the language environments of the same 23 children when they were 6, 10, 14, 18, and 24 months old. How, they asked, might the amount of talk children hear from their parents differ, and how might those differences shift as the children approach toddlerhood? They went in with few expectations, hypothesizing only that the language input from mothers and fathers would vary and that their adult word counts would change at different rates over time.

The results, published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, reveal that children were exposed to just shy of 46% fewer words from their fathers than from their mothers. This finding is consistent with what LENA’s researchers found in 2009: that mothers account for around 75% of the adult words that children hear in the first four years of life.

In addition, the researchers examined just how much of those adult words came in the form of parentese, with its characteristically slower tempo and higher pitch. In all, fathers produced about 52% less parentese than mothers. However, their use of parentese rose at a dramatically faster rate than that of mothers. At 6 months, children were hearing about 63% less parentese from their fathers. By 24 months, though, they were hearing only 35.5% less. Interestingly, the researchers found that both maternal word counts and paternal parentese predicted child vocalizations, while paternal word counts and maternal parentese did not.

“These asymmetries exemplify how the language of mothers and fathers can differentially relate to child language,” the authors write. As such, they close their paper with a call for “culturally sensitive interventions that enhance father-infant interactions.”

LENA programs put research into action

LENA puts this and other research into action through feedback-based programs for parents and teachers. These programs, currently in action around the world, are designed to increase adult-child conversational turns and have already benefited thousands of children:

  • LENA Grow, offering job-embedded professional development for early childhood teachers and family child care providers.
  • LENA Start, strengthening families with parent-group classes.
  • LENA Home, adding an early language focus to any home visiting program.

Learn more about bringing LENA to your community by clicking the button below:

Learn more about how to implement LENA programs


The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

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