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maternity mask

Catherine McCulloch is all smiles as she cradles baby Mia in YNHCH’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The unit is piloting the use of clear face masks, which help newborns to pick up on important visual cues that support bonding and development.

NNICU masks provide clear advantages for developing infants

Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NNICU) is piloting the use of clear face masks to help infants bond with their parents, despite restrictions posed by the pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed hospital protocols in many ways. Parents with babies in the NNICU feel the weight of these changes daily, as they must don face masks when spending time with their infants. Without being able to see the faces of their parents/caregivers, these infants can miss out on crucial visual tools necessary for the development of language and social-emotional skills, said Angela Montgomery, MD, director of the NNICU Great Results After Discharge (GRAD) follow-up program. 

“Human faces are one of the most important stimuli in an infant’s environment,” she said. “The ability to recognize faces is important for attachment, and development of the brain, language and social skills.” 

To address the mask issue, a team from Neonatalology, Nursing, Rehabilitation Services (Speech and Language Pathology, Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy), Respiratory Medicine and Child Life researched a variety of clear face masks. They found the Safe 'n Clear Communicator Mask, which meets Infection Prevention requirements for a snug fit, and has transparent front panels that allow babies to see their parents’ mouths and faces. 

Parents use the masks while interacting with their infants, then store the masks in the infant’s room for reuse. When parents/caregivers leave the infant’s bedside, they replace the clear mask with a surgical mask, per hospital protocol.  

Decades of research show that infants demonstrate high interest in viewing people’s faces, especially their parents', said Kaitlyn McNabb, YNHCH speech and language pathologist. The clear masks help parents to develop secure attachments with their infants. 

“Visual cues of the face and mouth are critical to the development of our NNICU infants,” she said. “These cues facilitate emergence of pre-linguistic language skills.”