Mask or no mask, babies remember a face

"There are so many variations in babies' everyday lived experience," Lisa Oakes says. "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." (Credit: Getty Images)

Babies who are 6 to 9 months can form memories of masked faces and recognize those faces when they’re unmasked.

The new study should allay concerns of many parents and childhood experts who worry about possible developmental harm from widespread face-masking during the pandemic.

For the study Michaela DeBolt, a doctoral candidate in cognitive psychology, and Lisa Oakes, a professor in the psychology department and at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, used eye tracking to study how masks influence infants’ facial recognition.

They showed 58 babies, each seated on a parent’s lap or in a highchair, 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 recognized, DeBolt says.

The testing took place at the 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 recognized it,” DeBolt says.

However, when the order was reversed, babies did not show strong recognition of masked faces that they first saw unmasked. DeBolt says that was similar to her own experience of not instantly recognizing a friend who was wearing a face mask.

Learning faces is central to how babies learn to talk, perceive emotions, develop relationships with their caregivers, and explore their environment, Oakes says. “So people were very worried about face masks and the effect they would have on how infants are learning about human faces.”

Oakes, an expert on cognitive development in infancy, says the study highlights a remarkable ability of babies to adapt. “I think that it should be very reassuring to parents in general,” she says. “Babies all over the world develop and thrive.

“There are so many variations in babies’ everyday lived experience,” she adds. “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.”

The study appears in a special issue of the journal Infancy, which focused on the impact of COVID-19 on infant development.

Source: UC Davis