Any mother will tell you that babies love staring at people’s faces. Vision researchers from Stanford even said that infants process faces long before they recognize other objects. As early as four months, infant’s brains already process faces at nearly adult levels even if they analyze other images in lower levels of their visual system. Developmental psychologists also say that faces are key for the little learners to learn social cues and language, among other information.
However, with the Covid-19 pandemic, recommendations to wear face masks could mean a delay in child development. This is why psychologists have been recommending the use of transparent face masks for caregivers to support child development.
Lip-reading babies for language development
Babies learn to talk in stages, starting with babbling and baby jargon. They use repeated words over and over, like “bababa” without a certain meaning. It is in this magical stage, when the babble changes into the syllabus, that babies move their gaze from eyes to the mouth. Developmental psychologist David Lewkowicz told CBS News to imitate others, the baby has to know the shape of their lips and this will help them learn the sound they’re hearing. “It’s an incredibly complex process,” he added.
University of Florida's professor of psychology Dr. Lisa Scott shares the same thought and is now calling on educators and policymakers to implement the use of transparent face masks for teachers or caregivers of infants and young children. In a report published by Wisconsin Public Radio, Dr. Scott said that there are unique lessons aside from lip-reading that babies learn from different parts of the face.
Scott added that wearing surgical or cloth face masks doesn’t mean babies will not learn the language. It’s only that it will be a little bit taxing and harder for them since infants depend on watching people’s mouths for language development.
Language delay and speech disorders
Among the more than 750,000 children in the US age 3 to 5 years in 2016 who were enrolled in special education, 45% of them have speech or language impairment and 38% have developmental delay, according to Pediatrics in Review, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Meanwhile, a 2012 National Health Interview found that 7.7% of children aged 3-17 years had a communication disorder during the past 12 months when the survey was conducted. Some of the most prevalent types of communication disorders were speech problems (5.0%), language problems (3.3%), voice problems (1.4%), and swallowing problems (0.9%).
Alongside language development by lip-reading, infants also pay close attention to the eyes. It helps them pick up cues on what they should pay attention to. They then learn emotional and social tasks based on the movement of multiple features together, such as eyebrows raising during a smile. When the whole face moves, babies identify people, especially if they are paired with names, Dr. Scott explained.
While it is still uncertain how wearing face masks will impact language development of kids and young children, at home parents and caregivers should be intentional about giving face time. This is especially true if babies are exposed to face masks for long periods. Face time could be where the parent is just sitting and playing face to face with the baby, making facial expressions, talking, and playing with them. As babies acquire more and more expertise at identifying familiar faces, they will continue to grow and learn to match the image of emotional expression to its corresponding vocal expression. For example, a happy face matches a happy voice.
Opaque masks for the hearing-impaired
Organizations, like the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (AHSA), also encouraged the public to use opaque masks to ensure communication with people who are deaf or hearing-impaired. These people not only rely on sign language but also lip reading and other visual cues to communicate with others.
The story of Allysa Dittmar, who is deaf, was even featured in Popular Science to highlight this issue. She recalls the time when she had to undergo a hospital procedure in 2017. The doctors were suited in their surgical gowns and masks and asked Dittmar some pre-op questions. But the problem was that the interpreter for the hospital did not show up. So, the medical staff just stopped talking to Dittmar and moved her body instead “as if she were a doll”. She said it was a disorienting and dehumanizing experience. The pandemic has now brought Dittmar’s story to scale, adding to the challenge of Covid-19.
With mouth and nose coverings, people who are hard of hearing, deaf, or speak foreign languages will have a harder time to rely on facial movements and lip movements to understand a discourse around them. “It took a pandemic for people to realize consciously and explicitly that seeing someone’s face is so important,” medical supply store ClearMask’s CEO Aaron Hsu said.
The challenges now to getting more people to wear clear masks are availability and cost. Buyers would prefer a surgical mask for less than a dollar for apiece compared to $4 on a ClearMask, for instance.
ASHA President Theresa Rodgers said in a statement that there are other ways to communicate with a hearing-impaired person, including body language and hands, moving to a quieter environment, and talking louder and slower. Some teachers, nurses, and other professionals have already started to respond to the call. They say that wearing clear masks can make interacting with students and patients more seamless than full-cloth masks.
Face mask usage by demographics
A new survey from Gallups shows that 44% of US adults now wear face masks always when outside their home while 28% said they wear it very often. Women (54%) and college graduates (49%) responded the most that they always wear a face mask when outside their home while men (34%) and non-college graduates (41%) said they either rarely or never wear a face mask.
Wearing face masks is important in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic but it makes sense for the public to consider mask options that make the mouth visible. Not only will it allow young children to keep learning from adult’s faces but will also allow us to better communicate with a hearing-impaired person.