Babies learn sounds and language by watching faces. From birth, babies stare at eyes. By 4 to 8 months, they shift to also watching mouths, where sound is originating. So, does mask wearing have an impact on their language development?
“There are no studies specific to the current situation,” says Robynne Kratchman, MS, director of speech language pathology programs at Speech & Hearing Associates in northern New Jersey. “But we do know masks hide faces, and babies need face time. Masks also mute sounds, hide our expressions, and limit what babies can see and hear, all of which could potentially delay sound and speech development.”
How do you know if there may be a delay in your baby’s speech development? “Parents should be concerned if their baby is not aware of other people, not interested in interacting with people, not responsive to other people’s communication and not engaging in any sort of ‘back-and-forth’ play, does not vocalize at all, does not smile after the first two months or so, doesn’t watch the parent when the parent is speaking, or if they used to do those things but either stopped or their development seems to have slowed down,” says Cristina Farrell, MD, MPH, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Goryeb Children’s Hospital Child Development and Autism Center in Morristown. She advises immediately discussing concerns with your pediatrician, who can do a developmental screening.
What can we do if we’re worried our babies aren’t getting the full message from our masked faces? Here’s how to help:
GO MASKLESS AT HOME WHEN POSSIBLE
“If you have a babysitter or other caregivers coming into the home, consider having them use masks that have clear cutouts for the mouth or face shields so kids can see the full face without barriers,” says Cheryl Pizappi, MS, supervisor of the speech department at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Clifton, Bayonne and Newark.
IMITATE YOUR CHILD’S SOUNDS
Babies begin life by making ‘cooing’ and ‘gooing’ sounds as early as birth to 3 months. When your baby babbles, babble in return. Make different noises, use facial expressions and make sure your child can see your mouth when you’re talking to them. This helps your baby learn how sounds are made and how to read social and emotional cues from your face, says Kratchman.
MAKE FACE TIME A PRIORITY
Get down on your baby’s level and speak directly to her. Let your child touch your throat or mouth as you make various sounds so your baby can feel the vibrations. Sing and read to your baby. Make different sounds with different toys. Look in the mirror together, making faces or playing peekaboo with a blanket, says Pizappi.
NARRATE YOUR DAY
Explain what you’re doing. “We’re going to have some strained peas. Look at what a pretty color they are.” Work on anticipation, too. Every time you go to the fridge say, “Open!” Then reach for the handle and pause. When baby makes a sound, open the door and say, “Open!” to help teach the relationship between sounds and actions. If something doesn’t feel right, call your pediatrician or schedule an evaluation by a speech language pathologist. “If there are delays, we know early intervention results in the best outcomes for kids,” says Kratchman. Telehealth also has become increasingly available, which may be a more convenient option.
Learn about milestones and tips for nurturing your baby’s language skills at: