Several months ago, my daughter, Penny, and I were walking around Target. She had just turned 1. Penny is typically shy, but she kept saying “hi” to a man nearby. I turned around and quickly saw why: He was the only customer not wearing a mask.
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 do exist suggest masks do not inhibit child language development.
“I am not aware of any research or evidence that demonstrates that face masks worn by adults when interacting with children prevents or delays speech and language development in typically developing children,” says Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Visual and auditory cues
Children rely on both visual and auditory cues when they’re learning to communicate — a process that begins around 8 months of age. But children’s brains during the first three years of life are incredibly plastic, meaning they can still change and grow significantly, says David Lewkowicz, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories, an independent research group in New Haven, Conn., who studies speech and language development in young children.
“Being deprived of seeing half of the face could be overcome precisely because of that brain plasticity,” he says. “Babies and young children are far more adaptable to their changing conditions in the world than we are as adults.”
Recently, I sat with Penny on a bench at a colorful and warm botanical conservatory near our home in Chicago. I smiled at her beneath 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 my eyes, and she smiled back. She couldn’t see my mouth, but it didn’t matter.
Tone of voice
In addition to brain plasticity, many children rely on caregivers’ eyes and tone of voice when communicating.
One 2012 study found that children 9 and under did not have any trouble deciphering emotions in masked faces. A 2021 study concluded that tone of voice was more important than facial expression when conveying emotion to children. And a 2020 study found children could ascertain accurate emotional information about adults even when they wore masks. Plus, blind children typically develop language in a similar trajectory to children without visual impairment, Paul says.
“There is evidence that there are a lot more cues than just the mouth that children attend to when they’re learning speech and language,” Paul says. “In fact, the eyes convey emotion, and it’s often the eyes young children look at when someone’s wearing a mask.”
Although most research suggests mask-wearing isn’t inhibiting child language development, many parents still worry. Alyssa Lucchesi’s 2-year-old child, Sloane, attends day care with masked caregivers. Because Sloane didn’t have any words by age 2, they began early speech intervention with a speech therapist, which has helped immensely. But Lucchesi says she often wonders whether mask-wearing by adults is related to Sloane’s speech delay.
“I try not to think about it, because that’s a scary thought — that in trying to keep your child alive and healthy, you’ve damaged them in another way,” she says.
Emily Langworthy’s 2-year-old daughter, Rosalyn, also attends day care with masked caregivers, and was experiencing language delays. When Rosalyn and her parents contracted the coronavirus and had to isolate for two weeks in January, Rosalyn’s language exploded, Langworthy says. She believes it’s because her daughter was home with her unmasked parents all day.
Some believe a solution for this potential problem is to implement transparent face masks in schools. One 2021 study looked at whether 2-year-olds were better at discriminating speech when adults had opaque or transparent masks on. Interestingly, children were better at communicating with adults who wore opaque masks.
“The plastic itself distorts the visual information you’re seeing,” says Lewkowicz, who is also an adjunct professor at the Yale Child Study Center. “So [transparent masks] are not the be-all and end-all we think they might be.”
Worth nothing is that the nascent research on this topic relates to children who are developing normally. Peter Smith, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago, says while mask-wearing isn’t cause for too much concern in terms of child language development, removing masks in the future could be difficult for children with anxiety or children fixed on routine, such as those on the autism spectrum.
“There are vulnerable populations we’ll worry about, but the vast majority I don’t think will have problems,” he says Smith, who also is also chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. “Kids are resilient and adaptable.”
Lewkowicz says he believes 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 else, wearing masks increases safety, and that takes precedence,” she says.
Best ways to communicate with your child
Most babies and toddlers interact with their siblings, parents and other unmasked caregivers.
If children attend day care with masked providers, getting face-to-face, unmasked interaction with their family members before and after will probably offset being around masked adults all day, says David Lewkowicz, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories.
Regardless of your child’s daily routine, you can ensure your communication with them is as effective as possible with these tips.
- Speak clearly. Masked adults should speak louder, enunciate better and use more gestures when speaking to young children, says Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. If a child still has trouble understanding you, consider moving to a quieter place and having the child face you.
- Go beyond just talking. Parents and caregivers need to communicate with children in an independently contingent way, Lewkowicz says. This means responding to the signals your child sends you. For example, if your child asks you a question, respond to them. If you ask them a question, wait for their response instead of speaking over them. “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 quiet reading time together — which most families are already doing — is very helpful,” he says.
- Seek help if necessary. If you’re concerned about your child’s language skills, don’t be afraid to consult your pediatrician. They can help you determine whether early intervention is necessary. “Trust your gut,” Smith says. “You are the best expert on your own child.”