As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to spread, it's important to take steps to stay healthy, such as frequently washing hands and practicing social distancing. One important precaution families should take is wearing a face mask in public, especially in situations where social distancing is difficult.
However, for many parents, getting a child to wear a face mask and leave it on may feel like a challenge. Kids are active and tend to be fidgety – and wearing a mask can be an adjustment for anyone. But parents might be surprised to learn that their child is capable of wearing a mask – it may just take a little practice.
"Kids are quite resilient and adaptable," says Lauren Faubel, Certified Child Life Specialist at Children's Health℠. "While every child is different, a lot of the time, kids may have an easier time adjusting to wearing a face mask than adults do. They tend to get distracted and may not even notice their mask after a while, especially in a situation where wearing a mask is normalized."
See why wearing a face mask is important for kids and seven tips to help your child adjust.
Why should children wear face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 spreads mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking. A cloth face covering acts as a barrier to help prevent the spread of those respiratory droplets. Cloth face masks are most effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 when they are used widely by people in public.
"Wearing a mask is a small simple ask, but it can help saves lives," says Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern. "One of the big challenges of COVID-19 is that individuals can shed infectious virus before they become symptomatic and some infected individuals may never become symptomatic. Asymptomatic infection is especially common in children, and having your child wear a mask will potentially protect individuals that come in contact with your child."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 2 years and older wear a cloth face covering, with the exception of anyone who has trouble breathing or is unable to remove their mask without assistance. Children under the age of 2 should not wear a mask because of risk of suffocation. Learn more about how face masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
When should children wear a face mask?
Children 2 years and older should wear a cloth face mask when they are in public and around people outside their home. Face masks are most important in situations where social distancing is difficult to practice, such as in a grocery store. Children do not need to wear a mask around their own home, if playing outside away from other people or during swimming.
If your child has a developmental disability, mental health condition or sensory disorder that makes it difficult to wear a cloth face covering, it may be best to avoid crowded places or social interactions where masks are needed. Talk to your health care provider for more advice.
How can I help my child adjust to wearing a face mask?
Parents can help children adjust to wearing a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth by taking the following steps:
1. Explain to your child why face masks are important
Start by educating your child on why wearing a face mask is important to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Use age-appropriate language to talk to your child about coronavirus.
For younger children, stick to simple, concrete terms. "You can say things like, ‘Wearing a mask helps keep us safe and keep others around us safe,' or ‘Wearing a mask can help protect us and others from germs,'" says Faubel. "It's helpful to be consistent in how you explain this and saying this message over and over."
For older children, you can share more information and refer to trusted resources such as the CDC for illustrations that show how masks can help prevent the virus from spreading.
"Public health measures, such as wearing a mask, are essential to getting the spread of the virus under control," says Dr. Kahn. "It is important to empower children with the knowledge that they can potentially safe a life and that they are playing a vital role in fighting the pandemic."
2. Normalize face masks through play
Children learn through play, and this can also help them process their feelings. Give your child a mask for their favorite stuffed animal, sew a matching mask for a doll or draw masks on characters in coloring books. Practice putting the mask on their toy and consider having your child practice wearing the mask with the toy to normalize the situation.
Listen to what your child is saying as he or she plays; it's a great way for parents to learn how their child is understanding or feeling about a situation.
3. Provide fun and colorful mask options
As face masks become more common, it's getting easier to find kid-friendly patterns and options. Look for cloth masks that feature your child's favorite color or character. You can even have your child help choose a design, so they feel a part of the process.
"If possible, have a few different mask options for your child, so they can decide which mask they want to wear that day," suggests Faubel. "This can help prevent any battles when asking them to put on their mask."
When looking at kid-friendly mask options, make sure you choose a cloth face covering that is easily washable and sized for your child's age.
4. Ensure your child's mask fits correctly and comfortably
Making sure your child's mask fits correctly and comfortably will help prevent them from fidgeting with it. A cloth face covering should fit over your child's nose and mouth and be secured under their chin. Avoid any gaps on the sides by adjusting the mask's fit so it is snug. Always check that your child can breathe easily when wearing the mask. When putting on your child's mask, or when teaching your child how to put on their own mask, make sure you or your child always wash your hands first.
5. Enlist your child's help
Giving children a job or responsibility can help them feel empowered and more in control of a situation. Designate your child as the family "mask monitor." When leaving the house, have them check that everyone has their mask available. You can ask older siblings to help younger siblings by reminding them to wear their mask.
It can also help to keep your child's hands busy when wearing a mask. For instance, if you are in a grocery store, ask your child to help you carry an item. This can help prevent them from touching their mask.
6. Practice wearing a mask
Whenever you introduce something new into your child's environment, it can help to practice and slowly get them comfortable with the change. Before bringing your child out in public in a mask, practice putting on the mask and wearing it for short periods around your home. You can look in the mirror to explain how it should fit and start with just a few minutes.
7. Model healthy behavior: Wear your own mask!
One of the best ways to encourage your child to wear a face mask is to wear one yourself. "Kids are always watching and listening," says Faubel. "They will notice how you talk about face masks and how you react when wearing one – and they will follow your lead."
While wearing a mask can be an adjustment, try to use positive language and reinforce why wearing a face mask is helpful for your family and for others in the community. Focusing on the things you can control and thinking positively can go a long way in reducing anxiety about COVID-19.
Wearing a face mask can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but getting kids to wear one can be a challenge for parents. An expert at Children’s Health shares tips to help kids over 2 adjust to wearing a mask.
Learn more about COVID-19
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.