Masks aren't a barrier to parent-infant interactions, according to new research from UMass Boston

There’s no doubt that masks have disrupted how adults interact with each other. But does the same disruption happen when communicating with infants? 

The latest research from Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Director of the Child Development Unit Ed Tronick indicates that it might not. 

Tronick is widely known for his Still Face Experiment, a study done several years ago that recorded the changes in mother and infant interactions when the mother stopped responding to her child. The online video of the experiment went viral at the time, with nearly 13 million views. 

Today, with masks interrupting so much human interaction, Tronick was compelled to apply his research to masked communication, so he and his colleague, Nancy Snidman, set out to do so. What they found was good news: Masks seemed to not change the interactions between mothers and their children at all. 

The team studied 23 mothers and children who submitted videos that taped their interactions without a mask and then after putting a mask on. Of all the subjects, “a majority of the reactions were positive or neutral,” the report stated. “And all but two [interruptions] were short lived, lasting only several seconds.”

“The love that the mother is expressing to the infants is picked up by the infant,” said Tronick, summing up the findings of the study, which is currently under review by the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. “The connection is still there, even though the mother is wearing the mask.”

The findings, which have already appeared in a September article in the Wall Street Journal, come as somewhat of a surprise. Anyone who has worn a mask during a conversation knows that adult interactions are significantly impacted by masks, which begs the question why infants are different. 

“One reason it's surprising is the work that has looked at masked interactions has primarily been with adults. With adults there does seem to be an effect with mask wearing – it derails the interaction and makes it harder for the adults to emotionally communicate with one another," Tronick said. “So that’s the prediction you would make with infants, but we didn’t see any hint of that. Our results were just so consistent.”

The results were not only positive signs for parent-child interactions today, but also how they develop in the future. 

“The findings speak to the issue that mask wearing is not interrupting the early emotional connection between mothers – and presumably other caretakers – and their infants. So that relationship and that emotional exchange, which is fundamental to normal development, [remains]. Were we disturbing that and even destroying it, even in the short run we would worry about its long term-effects. But we’re not seeing any effect of that,” said Tronick. 

He noted that the research may also carry broader implications for the neuroscience field. Although it was a smaller and initial study, the findings raise questions about development in infants and young children. 

“One hypothesis is that infants, even newborns, are born with a built-in face detection system, and that they’re really prepared to interact with people [when they are born],” he said. “Another alternative [could be] that infants learn about faces, so they shouldn’t be disturbed by the mask because they don’t know what faces look like.”