Understanding a child’s response to masks.

Today I want to chat about masks and how adults wearing them can affect a child’s ability to understand and process non-verbal communication.

The first week of being back at Rise Chiropractic was undoubtedly a novel experience. With faces masked, quiet offices, and no Vicky (office manager) to greet and chat to patients, the new landscape of the practice has been a bit disconcerting.

While the air we breathe in and out is invisible, one very visible sign of our current new reality is that we all have to wear face masks when entering public spaces.

Like visiting your doctor or going to the grocery store. I noticed a change in the babies I was working on during treatment and I think it has something to do with wearing a mask. This got me wondering how masks could be affecting a child’s ability to read and express their emotions in relation to the people around them. What about moms in masks, is this a shock for newborns? Babies and children are wired to look at faces and learn to read and to express emotions from birth.

I remembered a fascinating article I had read some time ago about the Still-Face experiment and how it could relate to wearing masks.

In the 1970’s, Dr Tronick developed an experiment which showed how a baby, after a few minutes of sitting face to face with a non-responsive expressionless mother, quickly gets upset and grows wary. The baby makes repeated attempts to get the mother to respond to their crying and react as she usually would. But when this fails, the baby withdraws and turns their face and body away from mom with a hopeless facial expression. The this experiment is a powerful study that shows our need for connection from a very young age. 

masks child's

The development of this emotional communication, called social referencing, happens between infancy and the early preschool years and really is a fascinating subject. Could masks be disrupting this ability for babies and young children?

Think about this for a second – Isabel, a curious baby, crawls up to a wall socket and is about to touch it when she turns toward her mother and sees a fearful look on her face. Isabel is not very likely to touch the socket, fortunately, because she looked to her mother for clues on whether touching the socket was safe.

One research study, demonstrates this well using the illusion of a “cliff” and a crawling baby . In the middle of the table is what looks like a sudden drop, but the surface is actually flat and completely safe to crawl across. A baby is placed on one side of the table while the mother stands on the other side with an enticing toy. The mother is told to smile or make a worried face. In most cases, when babies see a smiling face, they crawl across the cliff, but if they see a worried face, they choose not to cross the illusion cliff – super cool, and smart!

Social referencing is incredibly important. Infants and children rely on their parents facial expressions and tone of voice to regulate their response toward people and new situations. 

The whole face masks situation is causing some issue for babies and even older toddlers and children.

Here are a few idea’s that can help your kids know that a face, with a kind and compassionate expression, is still behind the mask:

  • Introduce the face mask to children at home, before bringing them into the world of covered faces. Trying new things within the familiarity of your home offers your little one the opportunity to step outside their normal routines.
  • Show the mask to your baby, and then put it on your face. Explain to them that you will be wearing the mask when you’re out the house, and other people will be wearing them too. Helping your child to anticipate future events offers security and eases anxiety.
  • Play peek-a-boo: Cover your mouth with the mask and then take it away to reveal a smile. Do this several times. Explain to your child that you’ll be smiling even though your face isn’t visible.
  • With older children Play “guess my expression”: Ask your child to watch your eyes and forehead. Ask your little one to guess how you’re feeling from the expression of your eyes and forehead.
  • Keep talking to your child through your mask. The mask will muffle your voice so it’s helpful to find a speaking volume that your child can hear.

Important note – MASKS are NOT to be worn by infants and toddlers under Two years old.