Mask Wearing and Early Childhood

Over the past year, mask wearing has become an essential part of our daily lives in order to keep ourselves and the people we love safe from COVID-19. As adults, we have tried our best to learn how to interpret facial expressions by just seeing someone’s eyes and eyebrows. We have had years to fine-tune this skill, yet it can still be difficult. So, how can we help our youngest population be successful in our mask-wearing world?

An article released this month discussed the potential developmental impact of mask wearing on infants and young children and provided suggestions to reduce the potential impact of mask wearing.

Before jumping into mask-wearing recommendations, let’s talk about why exposure to the entire human face is so important in early infancy. Our eyes and mouth are our primarily non-verbal communicators on our face. Being exposed to and having experience with faces in infancy is essential to social interaction and communication. This helps the baby develop a bond with his or her mother as well as develop an early reciprocal relationship. By being exposed to his mother’s face within hours of birth, the newborn is able to develop his or her ability to recognize a face, which helps later develop the ability to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar individuals. Facial exposure is also important for the infant’s ability to develop imitation skills and recognize emotion.

So how can we promote all these areas of development while continuing to stay safe? Listed below are recommendations provided by the authors for face mask communicative practices.

Recommendations for Newborns:

  • Talk to the baby through the mask.
  • When not wearing a mask, maximize facial interaction between family members in the home.
  • Provide alternative ways to communicate and connect with your baby while wearing a mask. The authors suggested use of a clear mask to ensure bonding and attachment are not hindered.

Recommendations for Infants and Children:

  • Let the child see the mask and practice putting it on their face at home. Explain to them that it will be worn outside.
  • Play peek-a-boo with a mask on and pull mask away to indicate that the parent is still smiling under the mask.

Janet Green, Lynette Staff, Patricia Bromley, Linda Jones, Julia Petty, The implications of face masks for babies and families during the COVID-19 pandemic: A discussion paper. Journal of Neonatal Nursing. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnn.2020.10.005.

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