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Baby masks and language development | My Baby My Star


A few months ago my daughter Penny and I were walking through Target. She had just turned 1. Penny is usually shy, but she kept saying hello to a nearby guy. I turned and quickly saw why: he was the only customer not wearing a mask.

I began to wonder, like so many other parents of babies and toddlers, if wearing masks was affecting Penny’s language development. Research has shown that babies who listen to people’s mouths when speaking have better language skills when they are older. We also know that babies learn by mimicking the behavior of their caregivers, such as B. Smiling, laughing and speaking.

Since wearing masks is a relatively new part of our daily lives, there isn’t much research on the subject yet. But the few studies that exist suggest that masks do not inhibit children’s language development.

“I am not aware of any research or evidence to show that face masks worn by adults when interacting with children prevent or delay speech and language development in normally developing children,” says Diane Paul, director of clinical issues at the Speech Pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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Children rely on both visual and auditory cues when learning to communicate, a process that begins around the age of 8 months. But children’s brains are incredibly plastic during the first three years of life, which means they can still change and grow significantly, says David Lewkowicz, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, an independent research group in New Haven, Conn Speech and language examines development in young children.

“The lack of being able to see half of the face could be overcome precisely because of this brain plasticity,” he says. “Babies and young children are much more adaptable to the changing conditions in the world than we are as adults.”

Recently I sat with Penny on a bench in a colorful and warm botanical conservatory near our home in Chicago. I smiled at her from under my mask and said, “Okay, little girl, let’s go to the parrots!” She looked at me, clearly aware of the joy in my voice and eyes, and smiled back. She couldn’t see my mouth, but that didn’t matter.

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In addition to brain plasticity, many children rely on the caregiver’s eyes and tone of voice for communication.

A 2012 study found that children under the age of 9 had no trouble deciphering emotion in masked faces. A 2021 study concluded that tone of voice is more important than facial expression when it comes to conveying emotions to children. And a 2020 study found that children were able to pinpoint accurate emotional information about adults even when they wore masks. Also, blind children tend to develop language in a similar way to children without visual impairment, says Paul.

“There is evidence that there are many more cues than just the mouth that children look for when learning language,” says Paul. “Indeed, the eyes convey emotion, and it’s often the eyes that young children look at when someone is wearing a mask.”

Although most research suggests that wearing masks does not hinder children’s language development, many parents are still concerned. Alyssa Lucchesi’s 2-year-old child Sloane attends day care with masked caregivers. Since Sloane had no words by the age of 2, they began early speech intervention with a speech therapist, which has helped tremendously. But Lucchesi says she often wonders if mask-wearing by adults is related to Sloane’s speech delay.

“I try not to think about it because it’s a scary thought — that you’ve otherwise harmed your child by trying to keep your child alive and healthy,” she says.

Emily Langworthy’s two-year-old daughter, Rosalyn, also attends day care with masked caregivers and had speech delays. When Rosalyn and her parents contracted the coronavirus in January and had to isolate for two weeks, Rosalyn’s speech exploded, Langworthy says. She thinks it’s because her daughter was at her exposed parents’ house all day.

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Some believe a solution to this potential problem is to introduce clear face masks in schools. A 2021 study looked at whether 2-year-olds were better at distinguishing speech when adults wore opaque or transparent masks. Interestingly, children were able to communicate better with adults who wore opaque masks.

“The plastic itself distorts the visual information you see,” says Lewkowicz, who is also an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center. “So [transparent masks] are not what we think they are.”

It’s worth noting that the emerging research on this topic relates to children who are developing normally. Peter Smith, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago, says while mask-wearing isn’t a cause for too much concern when it comes to children’s language development, mask removal could be a concern in the future for children with anxiety or children who are fixated on routine can be difficult, like those on the autism spectrum.

“There are vulnerable populations that we will be concerned about, but the vast majority, I don’t think, will have problems,” says Smith, who is also chair of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Children are resilient and adaptable.”

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Lewkowicz says he believes the benefits of wearing masks to prevent Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, outweigh any potential language development concerns. Paul agrees. “Wearing masks increases safety above all, and that comes first,” she says.

Best ways to communicate with your child

Most babies and toddlers interact with their siblings, parents, and other unmasked caregivers.

When children attend day care with masked providers, face-to-face, unmasked interaction with their family members before and after is likely to make up for the day with masked adults, says David Lewkowicz, senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories.

Regardless of your child’s daily routine, these tips will help you make your communication with him as effective as possible.

  • Speak clearly. Masked adults should speak louder, express themselves better, and use more gestures when speaking to young children, says Diane Paul, director of clinical problems in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. If a child is still having trouble understanding you, consider going to a quieter place and having the child face you.
  • Go beyond just talking. Parents and caregivers need to communicate independently and contingently with children, Lewkowicz says. That means responding to your child’s signals. For example, if your child asks you a question, answer it. If you ask them a question, wait for their answer instead of over-talking them. “You want to do a ballroom dance with your kid where there are two partners, not just one,” he says.
  • Read with your children. Reading is a great way to stimulate language development, says Peter Smith, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. “It’s very helpful to have quiet reading time together — which most families already do,” he says.
  • If necessary, get help. If you’re concerned about your child’s language skills, don’t be afraid to consult your pediatrician. They can help you determine if early intervention is needed. “Trust your gut,” says Smith. “You are the best expert on your own child.”

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