'No substitute for a smile': How mask wearing is affecting your baby's early social development

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Photo by David Veksler on Unsplash
Photo by David Veksler on Unsplash

While the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has affected families in many different ways, one of the hallmarks of the past year has been the mandatory use of face masks.

These are designed to curb the spread of the virus by preventing droplets from leaving our noses and mouths and potentially spreading infection to others.

This may be a good thing, but they also obscure our faces, and while for adults and older children this hasn't affected our relationships much, many parents have concerns about how they are affecting our babies.

Long term impacts

In South Africa, many babies are cared for by by an adult who is not their parent, so while they have opportunities to engage with their parents and close family mask-free, many may spend a large portion of their day in the care of a masked caregiver. 

These babies are learning social cues from the adults around them, and if the faces of their caregivers, such as nannies and daycare assistants, are partially obscured, surely this will hinder their development? 

Are these spending their formative years learning to read the faces of friends, family, and even strangers, through a mask?

Will they adapt, or will they be permanently disadvantaged by the lack of clear facial cues? 

Dr Anusha Lachman, of the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town says that early experiences have great potential to shape the trajectory of the developing brain and the long-term development of children. 

She tells Parent24 that it's not yet possible to be sure how all this will impact our babies, "mainly because we do not have all the data or information yet to be able to say for sure what the long term impacts are."

She adds that "especially with babies, we have to wait and see – and research is looking at this too but its too soon to tell."  

Also read: Building your baby's brain: They may inherit good 'material' but what makes or breaks the quality?

A fundamental prerequisite 

Nonetheless, Dr Lachman does explain that the ability to detect and focus on faces is a fundamental prerequisite for developing social skills.

"Immediately after birth, babies are attracted to moving objects and show preferences to face-like stimuli over other objects," she explained in a newsletter last year.

"The attraction for faces continues to develop over the next year of life, with the focus on faces allowing for infants to learn social-environmental cues and interactions with them," she said. 

Social communication

Dr Lachman goes on to explain how, from as early as two months of age, infants demonstrate skills like eye contact and facial expressions as part of social communication.

"During episodes of mutual gaze, the mother and infant engage in spontaneous facial and vocal communications that may elicit a positive effect on both mother and infant," she describes.

These face-to-face interactions allow the infant to be exposed to high levels of social and cognitive information, and for the next four to six months, shared smiles with caregivers are considered the high point of face-to face interactions.

Smiles are good for parents too, as they help provide the parent with the feeling that they are in touch with their baby.

Also read: Intentional smiling is a major milestone, too. Here's how to get your baby's gummy grin going 

Increased stress 

Dr Lachman wrote that research suggests that when infants expect a specific relational response from the mother or caregiver (such as a playful smile or expression) and this expected connection is not present (or interrupted in this case by the presence of a masked barrier), it could theoretically result in increased stress reactions.

The World Health Organization’s Nurturing Care Framework reassures us that in situations of unrelenting psychosocial adversity and stress, what may help to protect babies is responsive and attentive nurturing care from parents and caregivers. 

No substitute for a shared smile

Dr Lachman said that as part of the new normal in a masked world, parents and caregivers need to make an increased and more deliberate effort to notice and attentively respond to attempts by the infant to communicate.

"This would include more focused and attuned responses to gestures, sounds, movements, and non-verbal interactions to help create and reinforce a mutually enjoyable interaction," she said.

But for the really young infant, there likely can be no substitute for an authentic direct gaze with a synchronized shared smile, Dr Lachman concludes.   

Download and read more from Dr Lachman on this topic, here.

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