Masks aren’t a barrier to babies learning faces, UC Davis study finds
The Sector > COVID-19 > Masks aren’t a barrier to babies learning faces, UC Davis study finds

Masks aren’t a barrier to babies learning faces, UC Davis study finds

by Freya Lucas

February 21, 2023

While many parents and educators have shared concerns about the impact of mask wearing on children’s development, with the prevalence of masked faces throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) allays those concerns, finding that six- to nine-month-old babies can form memories of masked faces and recognise those faces when unmasked.


Professor Lisa Oakes worked with doctoral candidate Michaela DeBolt, using eye tracking to study how masks influence infants’ facial recognition.


In the study, 58 babies, each seated on a parent’s lap or in a highchair, were shown pairs of masked and unmasked women’s faces on a computer screen, while cameras recorded where they looked. Because babies linger longer over unfamiliar images, the researchers could derive which faces they recognised, Ms DeBolt explained.


The findings appear in a paper published in the January/February special issue of the journal Infancy, which focused on the impact of COVID-19 on infant development. The testing took place at Oakes’ Infant Cognition Lab at the Center for Mind and Brain in Davis, California, from late December 2021 to late March 2022, during a statewide mask mandate and the arrival of the coronavirus Omicron variant.


“When babies learned a masked face, and then they saw that face again unmasked, they recognised it,” Ms DeBolt said.


However, when the order was reversed, babies did not show strong recognition of masked faces that they first saw unmasked. 


Learning faces is central to how babies learn to talk, perceive emotions, develop relationships with their caregivers and explore their environment, Professor Oakes added, and this explains the anxiety many felt around the pandemic and children’s development. 


The study, Professor Oakes said, highlights a remarkable ability of babies to adapt. “I think that it should be very reassuring to parents in general,” she said. “Babies all over the world develop and thrive.


“There are so many variations in babies’ everyday lived experience,” she added. “As long as they are well cared for and fed and they get love and attention, they thrive. We can get into a mode where we think the way we do things is the best way to do things and that anything different is going to be a problem. And that’s clearly not the case.”


To view the study, please see here

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