Q & A: Helping Kids Wear a Mask
Wearing a mask when out in public is one of the easiest ways to help curb the spread of COVID-19, especially by those who may be infected and not yet realize it. But it’s not just adults who need to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kids do, too.
How do we as parents ease kids into masks and help them understand they need to wear them – and keep them on? We spoke to Dr. Andrew Bozeman, Pediatric Surgeon at Fairview Park Hospital, to answer a few questions:
Q & A
At what age should children wear masks?
Right now, the recommendation is any child over the age of 2, if they can tolerate it and don’t have any breathing difficulties.
Young children aren’t as capable as older children of consistently following rules, such as don’t touch your face, cover your cough, and use a tissue. Developmentally, they’re just not there yet. So, wearing a mask reinforces that message, because it’s a tangible reminder of the things they’re supposed to be doing — and not supposed to be doing.
Most kids start to get better at following rules by about age 6. But even then, they aren’t entirely reliable.
Why is it important for children younger than age 2 not to wear a mask?
The main reason is that infants and toddlers may not be able to get the mask off of by themselves, if they’re in distress. Most haven’t mastered speech yet, either, so they also can’t reliably tell you if they’re having problems — or, at least, not in the same way that an older child might.
Experts still don’t understand how sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) happens, but they do know that breathing is involved. And very young children breathe in a less regular and measured pattern than adults do. That’s why parents are always warned not to use blankets or crib bumpers. Those items can restrict air flow and potentially cause suffocation, should a child become tangled up or pressed tightly against a surface.
It’s the same thing with masks. An infant could get tangled up and not be able to get out of one. Or, the elastic could become a choking hazard when it slips over a baby’s head and tightens around the neck.
Why is it so difficult for some children to tolerate masks?
Some kids have sensory processing issues, so they can’t stand the sensation of the fabric against their skin. Others feel stifled or suffocated, particularly if they already have difficulty breathing, due to a chronic health condition such as asthma.
Small children simply don’t like to be restricted. Developmentally speaking, preschoolers especially are just starting to realize that they are separate from their parents. So, they’re wanting to go out and explore the world. Anyone who’s ever tried to restrain a young child who’s upset or excited knows how difficult that can be. It can feel very frustrating for the child, too.
For older children, resistance can stem from a form of claustrophobia. That fear is not just about being confined to a tight space. People can also start to feel panicky and hyperventilate when they’re constrained or restricted in some other way. Adults experience it, too.
Why is my child afraid of masks, and how can I make the concept less scary?
Masks can be scary for children because they hide part of the face, and from an early age, children look at faces for signals they need to feel safe. Not seeing a smile or an expression that is familiar to them can be frightening.
Here’s how to help make your child more comfortable with wearing a mask:
How can parents help younger children get more comfortable with the idea of wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
The key is familiarity. At Fairview Park Hospital we do all sorts of things to get kids familiar with medical materials, whether it’s fun activities or medical play. The idea is to make the item in question non-threatening. This is no different.
For instance, you might put a mask on yourself and play peekaboo. Or put one on a favorite stuffed animal, and then say, “Oh! Teddy looks so silly, doesn’t he? But, can we tell it’s still Teddy?”
Allowing the child to manipulate the mask, wear it, decorate it, or put it on someone else can be helpful. Let them touch it, feel it and really experience it. When they figure out it’s not going to hurt them, and it’s still you under the mask, it’s not a scary thing anymore.
Imaginative play can also get children to act out any misconceptions they may have. That helps you understand what they still don’t understand, so you can provide a better explanation.
What else can parents do to encourage their children to wear masks?
Set a good example by wearing a mask yourself. It’s important to practice what you preach, so it’s not a case of “do as I say and not as I do.”
Kids can sniff out hypocrisy pretty quickly, and it seriously dilutes the message when parents don’t lead by example. This is especially true for younger children.
How can I make sure my child is wearing a mask correctly?
For a mask to provide proper protection, it should be covering the nose and mouth entirely, and not be touched while wearing, as contamination can occur. Once the mask is on the child, make sure they are able to breathe effectively. When it’s ready to be removed, make sure it’s removed by the straps or ties.
Make sure that your child washes their hands before they put their mask on (or you wash your hands before you put it on them) and after it’s taken off. This will prevent any germs that are on the hands or mask from spreading. If the child uses a cloth mask, it should be washed after each use.
The reality right now is there’s not one, specific treatment for COVID-19 and no vaccine yet, so people of every age have some level of risk. I know it might seem like an extra effort to get your child to wear a mask, but it’s worth it – and it sets a great example.
- Wear a mask yourself, and let them know it’s ok if they feel scared
- Allow them to practice wearing a mask and teach them how to put it on and take it off before going out in public
- Make wearing a mask fun by having them decorate their mask if the fabric allows or using a fun and friendly pattern for masks made at home
- Put a mask on a favorite stuffed animal, or draw a mask on their favorite book character
- Explain the importance of wearing a mask before trying to put the mask on them