SINGAPORE – Born during the Covid-19 pandemic in the middle of 2020, Luis* spent the first two years of his life at home being cared for mainly by his grandmother, while his mother, Coleen*, worked long hours to support the family financially.

The pandemic restrictions meant Luis had few opportunities for social interaction and instead spent a lot of time looking at screens. When he started school at the age of two, he had a limited vocabulary and lacked the confidence to speak, preferring to remain silent or use gestures.

His predicament is not uncommon among young children who were born and raised during the pandemic, who had spent their early years in a world with movement curbs, social distancing and measures to reduce contact.

The pandemic’s impact on children’s learning and development has been evident. In the United States, a nationwide survey by the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience of the pandemic’s impact on children under five years old found 78 per cent of caregivers reporting their child as exhibiting behaviour problems as early as July 2020.

A study by the United Kingdom’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills reported that young children’s communication and language development were affected by the pandemic, with many education providers noticing delays in speech and language.

Locally, the Child Development Unit at the National University Hospital noted a year ago that it was receiving more referrals for problems such as speech delays, poor social engagement, signs of autism and short attention span during the pandemic, probably as a result of excessive screen time.

The Singapore Government has acknowledged the impact of social restrictions on young children. In his recent speech at the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said masks no longer had to be worn indoors, especially in schools, as children must be able to see the facial expressions of their teachers and peers to learn and grow. For children to develop language and communication skills, it is important for them to be able to observe lip movements and mouth shapes.