Donning a face mask when venturing outside your home is the new norm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says face coverings help slow the transmission of COVID-19 by people who unknowingly have the virus, which is why cloth or handmade masks are recommended for everyone. But encouraging everyone to do their part and wear a mask can be challenging, especially when it comes to children. To help them grow more comfortable with the idea, ongoing communication and support are essential.
Explain the benefits of mask wearing
Given that an estimated 25 percent of people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, wearing a cloth face covering plays a critical role in curbing cases.
“When they breathe, speak, cough or sneeze, virus particles will be trapped in their mask, protecting other people from being infected,” explained Dr. Jennifer Frank, Chief Medical Officer at ThedaCare. “Respiratory droplets can spread the virus that causes COVID-19.”
Parents should be honest with their children, while keeping the conversations appropriate for their age group so they understand the importance. Remind them that they are protecting their friends, neighbors and community members by wearing a mask.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests the following approach for speaking with children about masks:
- For children under three, it’s best to answer their questions simply in language they understand. If they ask about why people are wearing cloth face coverings, explain that sometimes people wear them when they are sick, and when they are all better, they stop wearing them.
- For children over three, try focusing on germs. Explain that germs are special to your own body. Some germs are good and some are bad. The bad ones can make you sick. Since we can’t always tell which are good or bad, the cloth face coverings help make sure you keep those germs away from your own body.
Follow recommendations from the experts
The CDC recommends those over the age of two wear a mask when outside of the home and when they cannot stay six feet apart from others. This includes places like the grocery store, pharmacy or a doctor’s office.
Children do not typically need to wear coverings if they are at home, as long as there is not exposure to COVID-19. Masks are also unnecessary outside, as long as children six feet apart.
“Staying home and physical distancing is still the best way to protect your family,” said Dr. Frank. “Especially for younger children who may not understand why they need to be six feet apart from others, or who cannot keep their mask on their face.”
Children who are sick with symptoms such as fever, cough, congestion, runny nose, diarrhea or vomiting should stay home.
For children with special health care needs, the AAP has the following recommendations:
- Children who are considered high-risk or severely immunocompromised are encouraged to wear an N95 mask for protection.
- Families of children at higher risk are encouraged to use a standard surgical mask if they are sick to prevent the spread of illness to others.
- Children with severe cognitive or respiratory impairments may have a hard time tolerating a cloth face covering. For these children, special precautions may be needed.
“Helping children feel comfortable now is good practice ahead of the school year,” said Dr. Frank. “Many districts are in the process of determining how to bring children back to school safely, and that may include some type of masking.”
Help ease the fear of masking
“It’s understandable that children may be afraid of masks or cloth face coverings at first,” explained Dr. Frank. “Again, honesty is best. Tell children that it will take a bit to feel comfortable with wearing a mask, and that is okay. We are all learning together and helping protect each other.”
Here are a few ideas to help make masks seem less scary from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):
- Look in the mirror with the face coverings on and talk about it.
- Put a cloth face covering on a favorite stuffed animal.
- Decorate them so they’re more personalized and fun.
- Show your child pictures of other children wearing them.
- Draw one on their favorite book character.
- Practice wearing the face covering at home to help your child get used to it.
“Be patient with your child,” said Dr. Frank. “This is a completely new experience for them. Encourage them by letting them know they are doing a great job and they will get the hang of wearing a mask.”
Choosing the right face covering
There are many choices for children when it comes to masks and face coverings.
Homemade or purchased cloth face coverings are fine for most people to wear. For children, the right fit is important. Pleated face coverings with elastic are likely to work best for kids.
“The CDC notes it is important to have them fit as snuggly as possible to your child’s face without restricting breathing,” said Dr. Frank. “Cover the nose, mouth, and side of the face, and use ties or ear loops to secure the mask. You want to limit the air coming out of the mask to avoid the escape of virus particles.”
Try to find the right size for your child’s face and be sure to adjust it for a secure fit.
Children should also be taught to clean their hands before putting on a mask and frequently wash hands while wearing it.
“You should avoid touching contaminants on the outside of your mask and then be handling your mask with dirty hands,” said Dr. Frank. “Always wear the mask with the same side facing outwards. If you flip it, you will be putting the side that could have germs against your face. And do not pull your mask down onto your neck, which is another point of potential contamination.”
If your child uses cloth masks, launder them frequently according to the following guidelines:
- Clean them after each use, or at least daily, especially if the mask gets damp from your child’s breath.
- Place cloth masks directly into the washing machine or basin.
- Avoid touching the mask with other surfaces to prevent the spread of the virus.
- Hand or machine wash cloth masks with detergent in hot water and machine dry on a hot cycle.
- Make sure they keep their shape after drying.
- Heat exposure deteriorates elastic, so if ear loops become overstretched, they will need a new face mask.
“Based on the evidence, children are less likely to get sick from COVID-19 and if they do, their cases are typically mild,” said Dr. Frank. “Children play a big part in helping control the spread of COVID-19. Make them feel empowered to know they being are responsible community members by wearing a mask.”