How do infants understand emotional cues when they are not able to see facial expressions on mask-wearing infant care teachers and staff?

Q: My one-year-old baby goes to infant care. I am worried about his speech development as the centre’s teachers and staff are masked up. Will he be able to understand emotional cues as he grows older? At what age will he start talking?

A: Health safety takes priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing a mask reduces transmission of the virus, but lowers the quality of sounds and eliminates most facial expressions.

For infants, sounds and facial expressions are important in developing communication skills. They learn non-verbal communication by looking, touching, hearing and imitating. They take cues from facial expressions, speech sounds, gestures and body language, acquiring language by one to one-and-a-half years old.

Although mask-wearing poses challenges for infants as they look to hearing and seeing cues, its impact on their development should not be a concern. Infants spend a substantial amount of time at home with their parents, who play an important role in their development. During feeding or playtime, parents and baby talk and bond with each other.

In the meantime, you can share your concerns with the care centre staff by suggesting that they reduce surrounding noise and distractions to get the child’s attention before talking to him. They can speak slowly, audibly and reassuringly, and repeat words if necessary, with different intonations for emphasis. They can also maintain more eye contact and use body language to provide him with additional cues.

Some children acquire speech and language skills at a later age than their peers, irrespective of whether the people around them are masked. Developmental language disorders affecting young children are the most common concern for parents.

At one year of age, children follow a one-step command accompanied by a gesture, respond to their own name, and recognise their parents by saying “ma-ma” and “pa-pa”. At two, children become sociable and enjoy playing alongside other children. They also learn to eat with a spoon. They can pronounce two-word phrases and should develop a vocabulary of about 50 words.

Children with visual and hearing disabilities may take longer to develop speech and language skills. But with appropriate attention and time, they can acquire communication skills, and develop emotional and social relationships. In general, when a sense is absent, other senses are heightened to help infants pick up other cues to learn from.

If you are concerned about your child’s language, personal or social skills, seek help from a certified specialist to evaluate him or her as soon as possible. Early intervention programmes are important and available in the community to support the development of children with special needs.

Professor Yeo Cheo Lian, Senior Consultant, Department of Neonatal and Developmental Medicine, Singapore General Hospital