Could masks affect newborn babies?


Photo: AFP

THE onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted everybody, including children and newborns. Malaysian babies born after March 18, 2020 (the day the first nationwide lockdown came into force), will only know a world in the grip of a pandemic. They may not have met anyone who isn’t their parent or sibling and may only have seen other family members, including grandparents, from a distance or on a screen.

As long as the pandemic continues (along with movement restrictions), they certainly will not have the same opportunities to interact with others compared with children born before the pandemic began.

Doctors will tell you that the first months and years of life are tremendously important for a child’s long-term health, development and well-being. Develop-ment takes place at an extraordinary rate during a baby’s first year – did you know that the brain of a baby doubles in size during this period? This early development depends crucially on external stimuli such as social experiences, which tune and hone the brain’s unfolding internal mechanisms as well as making the brain flexible and capable of adaptation.

Given the circumstances, no prizes for guessing whether parents are prepared sufficiently to ensure that their baby grows, learns and develops with peak wellness during this crisis.

Covid-19 has also changed the way newborn babies are cared for within the neonatal setting due to the wearing of masks. Masked faces make up the majority of the faces that a newborn will be exposed to in the formative days of his or her early life. A good question to ask is “To what extent will mask-wearing impact relational communication and attachment due to fewer unmasked face to face interactions?”

The limited research done so far shows that mask-wearing by care- givers can potentially influence a baby’s brain development. Babies have an uncanny ability to process faces, so will face processing in infants be adversely affected?

My experience with my nieces’ three little ones (born between February and May this year) is a case in point. Except for photos, I haven’t seen the three new arrivals in person or held them in my arms. Other than through phone and video calls and text messages, there’s not been a lot of family interaction. A major issue these three first-time mothers have been grappling with is deciding when it’s all right to introduce their precious babies to the whole Tara Singh family while ensuring their children are not put in harm’s way. The answer is, unfortunately, blowing in the wind.

If we might have taken the joy and close interactions we enjoyed with a new addition to the family for granted in the past, we will now definitely appreciate those times when family and friends could come over at will and hold and cuddle the newborn – in Chinese culture, for instance, I’m sure parents miss celebrating a baby’s first 100 days with family and friends.

DR POLA SINGH

Kuala Lumpur

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