Baby masks and language development

Because mask-wearing is a relatively new part of our daily lives, there isn’t much research on this topic 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 that shows that face masks worn by adults when interacting with children prevent or delay speech and language development in typically developing children,” says Diane Paul , director of clinical issues in speech therapy at the hospital. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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

“Being deprived of seeing half of the face could be overcome precisely because of this brain plasticity,” he says. “Babies and young children are much more adaptable to their 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 see the parrots!” She looked at me, clearly aware of the joy in my voice and in my eyes, and she smiled back. She couldn’t see my mouth, but that didn’t matter.

In addition to brain plasticity, many children rely on caregivers’ eyes and tone of voice to communicate.

A 2012 study found that children aged 9 and under had no trouble deciphering the emotions of masked faces. A 2021 study concluded that tone of voice was more important than facial expression in conveying emotions to children. And a 2020 study found that children could get accurate emotional information from adults even when wearing masks. Additionally, children who are blind generally develop language on a similar trajectory as children without visual impairment, Paul says.

“There is evidence that there are many more cues than just the mouth that children pay attention to when learning speech and language,” says Paul. “Eyes actually convey emotion, and it’s often the eyes that young children are looking at when someone is wearing a mask.”

Although most research suggests that wearing a mask does not inhibit a child’s language development, many parents still worry. Alyssa Lucchesi’s 2-year-old Sloane attends daycare with masked caregivers. Because Sloane had no words at age 2, they started early speech intervention with a speech therapist, which helped immensely. But Lucchesi says she often wonders if adult mask-wearing is related to Sloane’s speech delay.

“I try not to think about it, because it’s a scary thought – that by trying to keep your child alive and healthy, you’ve damaged them in some other way,” she says.

Emily Langworthy’s 2-year-old daughter Rosalyn also attends daycare with masked caregivers and was experiencing language delays. When Rosalyn and her parents contracted the coronavirus and had to self-isolate for two weeks in January, Rosalyn’s language exploded, Langworthy says. She thinks it’s because her daughter was home with her exposed parents all day.

Some believe that a solution to this potential problem is to implement transparent masks in schools. A 2021 study examined whether 2-year-olds distinguished speech better when adults wore opaque or transparent masks. Interestingly, children communicated better with adults who wore opaque masks.

“The plastic itself distorts the visual information you see,” says Lewkowicz, who is also an adjunct professor at the Yale Child Study Center. “So [transparent masks] are not the alpha and omega that we think they might be.

It’s not worth anything, it’s that the emerging research on this subject concerns children who are developing normally. Peter Smith, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago, says that while mask-wearing isn’t too much of a concern in terms of a child’s language development, removing masks in the future could be difficult for children. anxious children or children attached to routine, such as those on the autism spectrum.

“There are vulnerable populations that we’re going to be concerned about, but I don’t think the vast majority will have problems,” says he, who is also chair of the section on developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Children are resilient and adaptable.”

Lewkowicz says he thinks the benefits of mask-wearing to prevent covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, outweigh any potential concerns about language development. Paul agrees. “Above all, wearing masks increases safety, and that takes precedence,” she says.

The best ways to communicate with your child

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

If children attend daycare with masked providers, having face-to-face, unmasked interaction with family members before and after will likely make up for being surrounded by masked adults all day, says David Lewkowicz, scientist Principal at Haskins Laboratories.

Whatever your child’s daily routine, you can ensure that your communication with him is as effective as possible with these tips.

  • Speak clearly. Masked adults should speak louder, enunciate better and use more gestures when addressing young children, says Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. If a child is still having trouble understanding you, consider moving to a quieter place and having the child face you.
  • Go beyond simple conversation. Parents and caregivers need to communicate with children independently and contingently, Lewkowicz says. This means responding to the signals your child sends you. For example, if your child asks you a question, answer it. If you ask him a question, wait for his answer instead of talking to him. “You want to engage in a social dance with your child 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, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. “Having some quiet reading time together — which most families already do — is very helpful,” he says.
  • Ask for help if needed. If you are 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 instincts,” Smith says. “You are your own child’s best expert.”

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