There are two main areas of concern when it comes to mask wearing & how children process information: emotion/face recognition & speech development.
EMOTION & FACIAL RECOGNITION
For very young children, the research suggests that masks may not be as troublesome as we might fear. Infants as young as 5-weeks-old recognised their mother even with her mouth covered – provided she uses gestures, facial expressions & maintains physical contact.
Another study found that children’s ability to read emotion from masked facial expressions was comparable to wearing sunglasses. Even though some of the information was lost (i.e., mouth with masks & eyes with sunglasses), kids relied on other contextual information to inform their understanding of others’ emotions.
SPEECH UNDERSTANDING & DEVELOPMENT
When babies begin to babble (~6-8 months) they start looking more at mouths & less at eyes. Mask-wearing has made this transition a bit harder for babies & means they miss some of the visual cues related to language.
However, while speech occurs via mouth movements, a great deal of information is also communicated visually (e.g. eyebrows, body language & gestures). The mouth is only one element among many that children rely on for language input.
Obviously, masks are not ideal for communicating with young children. However, children still have un-masked interaction (e.g. at home with parents) giving them lots of opportunity for all the elements of language learning.
Children are resilient, they find ways to manage in the most difficult circumstances. Nonetheless, there are things we can do to help:
Use exaggerated facial expressions, vocalizations, hand movements & physical contact to help them get the most out of interacting with you while masked.
Spend as much time as you can without a mask on when around your kids.
Use play to help ease the stress of the pandemic
Treat both yourself & your children with grace & compassion. We are all doing the best we can during these difficult times.
References: Roberson et al 2012; Green et al 2021; Ruba & Pollak 2020; Bushnell 1982