Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our first child was born about four months ago. We are obviously delighted and are learning a whole new way of daily living on top of living in a pandemic. My question is about face masks. I know it is important for our little one to see faces, but other than her Dad and myself, most of the faces she’s seen are half-covered by a mask. Will this affect her ability to read emotional cues?
New Mom in a New World
This new world holds many challenges. What we know from previous research is that, yes, babies get a lot of information from faces. The important thing for your baby is for her immediate world—Mom and Dad—to provide for her physical and psychological needs. And that may sometimes require that she accompany you in interactions with masked individuals.
Newborns are immediately attracted to the human face. Due to familiarity with Mom’s and Dad’s voices, they are most attracted to their parents’ faces. For the first three months or so, it’s the eyes that hold a baby’s attention to the face of anyone who is within focus. In non-pandemic times, a baby should take an interest in faces that approach them. (Exceptions might include a bearded face. Unless Dad has a beard, this aversion to beards continues for most children until puberty.)
By four months, a baby shifts attention to the mouth, watching intently to connect the movements of your lips, tongue, and chin to the sounds of your voice. This is usually the same time that babbling becomes more directed to you so she can see your face while hearing your voice repeat the sound she is making.
Human faces not only have eyes and voices for a baby to connect with, they also have smiles to interact with. No doubt by now your family has enjoyed many grin sessions, perhaps initiated with your blowing a raspberry on the baby’s belly, or begun by the baby upon waking up to see you there.
The expression of happiness on your face becomes associated by the baby with the pleasurable emotion she is experiencing. At four months, her smile is involuntary – much like the reflexive smile you return upon seeing hers. (Interestingly the smiles of babies who are visually impaired are just as automatic. Parents of a baby who is blind will reinforce the experience of mutual happiness by their voices and touch.)
But what if there are no returned smiles for your baby during this pandemic other than Mom’s and Dad’s?
The closest research related to this question may be the Still-Face Experiment conducted by Dr. Ed Tronick, director of the University of Massachusetts Infant-Parent Mental Health Program. Originally conducted with mothers, the experiment was repeated with fathers by Dr. Richard Cohen of the Children’s Institute of Los Angeles to see how babies read and react to facial expressions.
Just as in the study with mothers, babies immediately respond when Dad’s smile disappears (he is instructed to turn away, and turn back with an emotionless face). The baby may be confused at first, but soon shows signs of distress by arching his back, calling out, or crying. The baby resumes the joyful interaction they were enjoying before the smile disappeared, as soon as Dad’s happy face returns.
It makes sense, then, that frequent exposure to expressionless faces would be disturbing to a baby. Note, though, that they are most concerned with the emotional expression of the person they count on for food, comfort, and play time. As with other historical events that put lives in peril, a child’s experience is least traumatic when her parents are able to continue to take care of her needs. As long as she often sees the smiling faces of her parents, occasionally seeing masked faces out in public shouldn’t have lasting negative ramifications.
It will be interesting to see research on the effect of reduced social contact for infants as the pandemic continues. Be sure to snap a few pictures of the masked faces of the people your daughter may interact with on a regular basis so you will be able to help her to see her babyhood in its historical context in a few years’ time.
Dr. Deborah Wood is leading an online workshop on Preschool Self-Esteem, Wednesday, September 30, 6–9 pm. Cost is $30. Register with Chesapeake Children’s Museum at: 410-990-1993 or at www.theccm.org.
Read more of Dr. Debbie’s parenting advice here.