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HLA House Project: Examining the Impact of Face Masks on Social & Emotional Development in Infants

Oct. 8, 2021

Students in the Health Leadership Apprentice Program, divided into “house” teams, work alongside Community-Driven Initiatives to help Central Texas community members address health-related issues. This post is by the 2020-2021 members of the Orange House: Faiza Quadri, Viana Phan, Christine Jeong, Dustin Junk, Revath Sankar and Isha Parikh.

With a common interest in maternal and infant health, we decided to focus our house project on alleviating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on maternal and infant populations. However, due to the pandemic, our initial project idea of delivering food and relevant literature to new mothers in Austin fell through. As a result, we had to pivot and adapt our project to something new.

We ultimately connected with, Ann Messer, M.D., founder of One Good Turn. One Good Turn is a global nonprofit that provides useful and culturally sensitive medical education to communities around the world. During our meetings with Messer and her team, we discussed a few areas of focus: researching the effects of the widespread wearing of face-masks on infant social referencing and respective social and emotional development; researching bonding with caregivers and providing recommendations to mitigate potential negative effects of mask wearing; and creating infographics and other materials with recommendations to mitigate the impact of masks on infants. We ultimately chose to conduct research on the effect of masks on the social and behavioral development of infants and develop interventions to mitigate potential negative effects.

We decided to use credible sources of research (peer-reviewed resources) to gain an understanding of what information is available on the topic of masks and their effects on infants. Due to the novel nature of the pandemic, not much research was available. The literature we did examine showed mixed results. There is some indication that the widespread wearing of face masks has hindered the development of social referencing, language learning and bonding in infants. However, information also reported that infants are resilient and have been able to bounce back from similar challenges.

As a result of these mixed findings, we decided to conduct more research and develop a plan that allows us to improve infant health in the most beneficial way possible. Our next steps include consulting experts on the topic of infant social and emotional development to see if there is a problem we can address in this field. If we do find substantial evidence of a problem, we will continue with our original plan of creating infographics and other materials with recommendations to mitigate the impact of masks on infants. If we find that this is not a problem, we hope to pivot our focus to compiling information on non-medical interventions that caregivers can implement to improve the health of their infants.

We are very excited to see where our project leads us, and we look forward to contributing to some endeavor that impacts infant health. Through our project work, we have learned about the importance of identifying real needs and problems before evaluating and proposing solutions. We also have learned how to communicate across a team and remain flexible and adapt when obstacles are faced. We also have learned about the drastic psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate effect on those that are the most vulnerable in our community. We are grateful for this experience and know this will be helpful in finding innovative solutions to future challenges.

We would like to thank One Good Turn and Ann Messer, M.D., for partnering with us. Additionally, we would also like to thank our mentors, Nitakuwa Barrett, MSN, RN, Department of Population Health; Heidi Eisaman, MBA; and Steve Steffensen, M.D., for all of their support, advice and guidance throughout this process.