Does the mask have negative effects on the cognitive development of babies?
Text updated on 2021-04-14
In the last year, our lives have changed and masks have become an everyday item. What effects can these masked faces have on the cognitive development of babies? In fact, babies and young children seem to suffer much more from their parents' stress and lack of cuddles than from masks!
The idea that masks could have a negative effect on the development of babies has spread rapidly in the media. It is known that masks can influence the way we communicate. See the question What are the effects of masks on communication? But to date, no solid scientific study has shown that wearing a mask around a baby could slow down his or her development. It has been suggested that the mask that hides the mouth could lead to a delay in language acquisition or reduce understanding of emotions. Here are some scientific arguments that contradict these ideas:
- Blind children never see the mouth of the person they are talking to. Yet they will babble and learn to talk.
- To learn to speak normally, 20 minutes of exchange with an adult per day is enough. It is very likely that all babies have at least 20 minutes of exchange with their parents without a mask!
- The emotions of joy, anger, fear etc. are recognizable in the intonation of the voice. Even though facial emotions are less easily recognized with a mask, the information in the intonation is sufficient to identify the emotions.
- It has been shown that sunglasses hide the emotions of the face as much as masks do; however, there is no concern about the impact of sunglasses.
Does the COVID-19 affect the development of babies?
As of April 2021, we have not found any published research on the effects of COVID-19 epidemic on the development of infants, due to lack of experience. However, it is possible to compare the current situation with a similar epidemic, SARS in Asia in 2003. One study showed a slight delay in development in children who lived through their early years during the SARS epidemic compared to children born afterwards.
In an epidemic situation, people's lives are radically altered by several factors: societal changes (isolation, confinement, wearing of masks and reduced outdoor activity), reduced social interaction, school closures, increased sedentary activities (especially those related to screens), a less diversified diet, etc. The level of stress in a baby's entourage is generally much higher. This stress can be due to the fear of illness or death, but also to socio-economic factors such as the loss of a job, professional uncertainties, financial problems, and the absence of many support systems for personal development and leisure. See the question What are the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Does the stress of a baby's environment affect his or her development?
Stress in a baby's environment can affect development. Children who have experienced significant stress during pregnancy or infancy may have poorer cognitive abilities with problems with concentration, attention, or delayed language acquisition.
It should be remembered that stress does not depend solely on the stressful situation or on the individual: it is the result of an interaction between the individual and the environment. Over the past year, the entire population has been confronted with multiple, repeated, and prolonged stressors, and has had difficulty using the usual strategies to cope with them.
How can the impact of adult stress on children be minimized?
We do not always have control over the stressful situation, and this undergoing passivity is in itself a factor of anxiety. A better understanding of the situation and the measures taken to deal with it reduces the stress felt.
Moreover, staying alone with your fear increases it; to reduce the impact of a stressful situation, a simple resource is to talk about it (with family, friends, or professionals). However, the measures taken to combat the spread of COVID-19 However, the measures taken to combat the spread of stress impose a drastic reduction in social interactions, at least in the form to which we were accustomed (coffee breaks with colleagues, family meals, outings with friends, etc.). It is therefore necessary to invent other ways of sharing pleasant moments with our loved ones (by telephone or video, or in person by going for a walk together, for example) in order to maintain a sufficient number of links with others. See the actions See your grandchildren, parents and grandparents and Have a drink with friends. Finally, we know that tactile interactions, hugs and caresses are essential for the cognitive development of young children and help reduce their stress!
Take advantage of your free time to cuddle with your kids and read the Adios Corona Q&A if you have any questions! You and your children will be less stressed!
Emotional recognition of faces was tested in children aged 7 to 13 years. Three conditions were tested: bare face, face with sunglasses and face with FFP2 mask. The children were better at recognizing emotions in bare faces than in sunglasses or masks. There was no difference in performance for recognizing emotions on faces with sunglasses or with a mask.Ruba, A. L., & Pollak, S. D. (2020). Children's emotion inferences from masked faces: Implications for social interactions during COVID-19. Plos one, 15(12), e0243708.
Blind children who never see their mouths babble and learn to talk like sighted people.Landau, B., Gleitman, L. R., & Landau, B. (2009). Language and experience: Evidence from the blind child (Vol. 8). Harvard University Press.
Study that shows that only 18 minutes of verbal exchange per day with the baby is required for normal language acquisition.Cristia, A., Dupoux, E., Gurven, M., & Stieglitz, J. (2019). Child-directed speech is infrequent in a forager-farmer population: A time allocation study. Child Development, 90 (3), 759-773, 10.1111/cdev.12974.
Emotional signals in the voice without semantic content (vocalizations) are very well recognized and do not depend on our culture.Sauter, D. A., Eisner, F., Ekman, P., & Scott, S. K. (2010). Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(6), 2408-2412.
A Chinese retrospective study of 14,647 children born before and after the SARS outbreak compared different markers of physical (e.g., weight, height), motor (age of walking and undressing alone) and cognitive (saying a complete sentence, counting from 1 to 10) development. Exposure to the SARS pandemic in infancy is associated with reduced weight, but also delayed motor and cognitive development. The various behavioural (isolation, reduced outdoor activity, masking, school closures, anxiety transmitted through the media), environmental (reduced exposure to nature) and socio-economic (job loss, financial problems) factors induce stress in the whole society that surely has an impact on the development of young children.Fan, Y., Wang, H., Wu, Q., Zhou, X., Zhou, Y., Wang, B., ... & Zhu, T. (2020). SARS pandemic exposure impaired early childhood development: a lesson for COVID-19. medRxiv.
Article that summarizes the different impact points: medical, psychological, economic, etc. of the COVID-19 on children and adolescents.Cheng, T.L., Moon, M., Artman, M. et al. Shoring up the safety net for children in the COVID-19 pandemic. Pediatr Res 88, 349-351 (2020).
The effects of stress on child development.Thompson, R. A. (2014). Stress and child development. The Future of Children, 41-59.
Tactile interactions are essential for a child's motor and cognitive development.Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental review, 30(4), 367-383.
Tactile stimulation such as petting can ease a baby's stress.Feldman, R., Singer, M., & Zagoory, O. (2010). Touch attenuates infants' physiological reactivity to stress. Developmental science, 13(2), 271-278.
A review of the literature on the effects of maternal stress during pregnancy on later infant development that shows that maternal stress during pregnancy can moderately impair a child's language development and attention span at age two.Gallois, T. & Wendland, J. (2012). Effects of prenatal stress on child cognitive and psychoemotional development: a review. Becoming, 3(3), 245-262.
In the US, between August 2020 and February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5%, and the percentage of people reporting a mental health disorder increased from 9.2% to 11.7%.Vahratian et al (Mar 26, 2021). Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic - United States, August 2020-February 2021. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.