Masks and Baby’s Speech Development: As it Turns Out, It Matters

Masks may make a difference when it comes to baby’s speech and and language development. That’s the upshot of a recent article at Scientific American, Masks Can Be Detrimental to Babies’ Speech and Language Development. The article echoes our own conclusions from several months ago in Face Masks: What Happens When Baby Can’t See Faces? But babies are most often at home with their parents, especially during the frequent lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic. Since masks are unnecessary at home, baby is still able to get plenty of mask-less face time. This face time at home, offsets the issue of delayed speech and language development as a result of the need for face masks in daycare and outside the home.

The author of the article at Scientific American, David J. Lewkowicz, does however make the point that babies begin lip-reading at 8 months. Lewkowicz, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories and an adjunct professor in the Yale Child Study Center, Yale University, says that masks mean babies are missing important visual cues about language. Which is exactly what we surmised back in October:

Infants and toddlers watch our faces for important clues about language and social situations. That is why it is so important that they can see our faces without anything getting in the way, for instance, a face mask that covers mouth and nose. But what happens when babies can’t see half our faces—our mouths, cheeks, and noses—in everyday situations?

Masks make it difficult for babies to read lips
Masks make it difficult for babies to read lips

Masks Mean Missing Cues

In his own article, Lewkowicz explains that babies begin to babble at around 8 months, when they become interested in speech and language. That is why they start lip-reading at this precise point in time. Babies are now looking for anything that helps them understand this fascinating new means of communication: speech. By reading lips, says Lewkowicz, babies glean important visual cues that help them for instance, figure out “which face goes with which voice.” But when the adults around them are wearing face masks, babies miss out on the information they need to make sense of what they hear.

According to Lewkowicz, bilingual babies appear to depend on lip-reading more than their single-language peers. Adults may not notice the subtle differences our lips and mouths make when speaking different languages, but babies are more attuned to these visual cues. Visual speech cues can help babies who speak more than one language distinguish between them. Babies–even more so bilingual babies–look to read lips in order to make sense of  speech and language. Face masks make it that much harder for babies to pick up the visual cues that help them understand what they hear.

Many of us adults can well understand baby’s predicament. With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, and the necessity for face masks, a large number of adults have now learned that they too, depend on lip-reading to understand speech. We first understand this when a masked clerk in a store is speaking to us, and we realize we have no clue what he or she is saying. This may be because we’re hard of hearing, or because the store is crowded, with lots of background noise. Or it may be because of a clerk’s unfamiliar accent or unclear speech. No matter the reason, lip-reading adds extra clues and context to help us make sense of what we hear.

protective masks mean baby cannot read lips
Protective masks mean that baby loses the ability to read lips

Masks: No Lips to Read

Bottom line? It sounds funny, but without lips, many of us just can’t hear. So why should we expect our babies, so new to speech and language, to be any different? Faced with a face that is covered with a mask, baby loses out on many of the clues he needs to make sense of this new thing called “speech.”

The pandemic hasn’t been around long enough for any long term studies to have been published to tell us the effect of face masks on baby’s ability to acquire speech and language. To tell the truth: COVID-19 hasn’t been around long enough for anyone to be an expert on any aspect of the disease or its impact. So we can only look at the available information and draw the most logical conclusions.

In the case of babies’ speech and language development, we know only that babies use lip-reading to help them understand and make sense of what they hear. We also know that babies who do more lip-reading, have better language skills when they are older. If face masks translate to no lips to read, the obvious conclusion is that the speech and language skills of babies living through the pandemic are going to suffer in this area, at least to some degree.

Caregiver masks make it difficult for baby to read lips
Caregiver masks make it difficult for baby to read lips

Wear Masks Anyway, Outside the Home

We guessed as much back in October, and Lewkowicz confirms that this is the case. But even he concludes that we need more research to know for a fact that face masks may be detrimental to the acquisition of speech and language in babies. Masks, meantime, are an important tool in keeping our babies safe. No one thinks it is a good idea to sacrifice baby’s health for the sake of having more visual speech cues. So keep on masking up when out of doors, and make sure baby’s caregivers do the same.

While the pandemic continues, however, make sure you spend lots of time with your baby at home, unmasked, and speaking face to face. Read to your baby and share lots of stories and rhymes. Babies are very good at adapting to any and all conditions. If you give your little one lots of face time, we have every confidence that your baby will soon be babbling away like the best of them–in spite of the lack of visual cues he or she encounters when outside of your home.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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