Memorial Health - August 04, 2020

How can parents help kids wear a mask?

Cloth face coverings (or a face mask, if you have one) on adults and kids over 2 years old can help slow the spread of the virus. Here are some ways to help kids wear masks when you go out:

Help kids get used to masks.

As much as you can, give kids time to practice wearing their masks before they might need to wear one outside of your home. Teach them how to put them on and take them off.

Encourage kids to decorate their mask.

This might help them feel a sense of ownership and control over the situation. A personal touch can help make it more of a normal part of their routine, and make it more likely they'll want to wear their mask. Depending on the type of mask, kids can draw on it with markers or put stickers on it.

Make them together.

If you make face coverings at home, let older kids help you. There are no-sew masks that are easy to make, often with materials you probably already have (T-shirts, bandannas, etc.). If you sew masks, maybe kids can select the fabric or patterns for the masks they'll wear.

Help make it fun.

With younger kids, introduce a sense of play. Kids can pretend to be a doctor or nurse while wearing their masks. They might want to use a doctor kit and "take care" of a stuffed animal or doll.

Have a few masks handy while kids play.

This lets them use their imagination about how to use them during playtime. It also helps make masks a more normal part of their everyday world. You can ask your child to put a mask on a stuffed animal, and then ask follow-up questions about why the stuffed animal is wearing the mask. Depending on your child's response, you can clear up any confusion and offer reassurance.

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.

  • 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

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 Memorial Health, 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. Wash hands after removing mask before touching face.

Parting thoughts

The reality right now is there's no effective, identified treatment for COVID-19 and no vaccine yet, so people of every age have some level of risk. 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.