When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly changed its guidance and announced that all Americans should be wearing cloth face coverings in public to protect against COVID-19, I immediately thought of my kids.
I can barely get them to keep hats on in the blazing sun or on freezing days. And though I’m proud of how my husband and I have turned them into dutiful hand-washers, they constantly have their hands on their faces. My elder son contends that it doesn’t count as nose-picking if you don’t eat any of the boogers you find.
So what do the new mask recommendations mean for children? And how can parents make sure that if their kids do start wearing masks in public, they do so safely? Here are six basics to have in mind.
1. There aren’t official guidelines for kids… yet.
The CDC recommendations call for people to wear cloth face masks in public settings where it’s hard to stay at least six feet away from other people, like at the grocery store or the pharmacy. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics told HuffPost that as of early this week, the group does not have any formal recommendations on masks. (She noted, however, that the AAP’s infectious disease committee has something in the works.)
And just about every major medical and public health organization, the CDC included, emphasizes that masks are not a substitute for social distancing (more on that below).
2. Masks are not for kids under the age of 2. And they’re definitely not for babies.
The CDC recommendations do specify that face masks and cloth face coverings should not be placed on anyone younger than 2. There are a few reasons for this. Babies’ airways are small, so breathing through a mask can be pretty damn hard for them — and could even increase their risk of suffocation.
Additionally, the likelihood that babies and toddlers are willing to 1) keep masks on their little faces and 2) do so without constantly touching them is basically zilch.
“We know that there is a group of kids who are not going to keep their masks on — and that’s anyone under the age of 2,” Dr. Brianna Enriquez, medical director of emergency management with Seattle Children’s, told HuffPost.
Parents of those younger kids can do far more to protect them by trying to curb their natural tendency to explore the world around them via licking and touching, she said, and by being vigilant about social distancing. Basically, keep them indoors.
3. If you are making a mask for your kids, just do the best with what you’ve got.
“Really young kids” plus “masks” might be a no-go. But experts say there can be good reasons to have kids over the age of 2 wear masks in public, if they’ll go for it. However, you’ve got to know your own kid, and make your own judgments.
“Masks prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” Dr. Rob Darzynkiewicz, chief medical officer of Hazel Health, told HuffPost. “About 1 out of every 4 people who have COVID-19 now have a fever or cough, so having the mask protects your child and also protects the people around them.”
That last point is especially important. There’s evidence that many kids are asymptomatic carriers who get mild symptoms of COVID-19 (or none at all) and can unwittingly spread the disease.
Kids’ masks don’t need to be different than adults’ masks. Material-wise, cotton is your best bet, and you can really make do with what you’ve got at home. Think pillowcases and old T-shirts. (Here’s how to make a no-sew face mask and how to make one out of a bandana.)
“The bottom line is that wearing a mask is better for reducing the spread of COVID-19 than not wearing one,” Darzynkiewicz said. “Homemade masks are also ideal options to save [personal protective equipment] for medical personnel on the front lines.”
4. Have your child practice at home first.
“If you think your child might keep a mask on, the first thing you want to do is make sure they understand that they have to try and not touch it,” Dr. Katherine Williamson, a pediatrician with CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital in California, told HuffPost. She recommended that parents have their kids practice wearing a mask at home, and watch them really carefully.
“At some point, you’re probably going to see restlessness kick in,” Williamson said — and that’s when it’s important that you’re there to remind your kiddo to resist the urge to touch their mask or their face. Explain that they will need to wash their hands before they touch their mask and after — every single time.
Get really specific about it, said Joy Kawamura, a psychologist with Seattle Children’s. Like, “How are we going to put the mask on? What do you do with your hands?” she said.
That isn’t just important from a safety perspective, Kawamura emphasized. It can also help your child feel calm and in control if they get some experience wearing a mask with you, at home, before they’re out in the real world.
5. Be open about why people are wearing masks — and let them ask questions.
Your kid might be confused or, frankly, freaked out about why they’re being asked to wear a mask for the first time, or why they’re suddenly surrounded by adults who are. So have a frank conversation now about why this is all happening, tailored to their age. Keep it simple, Kendra Read, a psychologist with Seattle Children’s, told HuffPost. Something like: You will see people wearing masks right now, and this is why.
“Where people tend to get stuck is when they don’t have honest conversations with their kids about what is happening,” Read said. You don’t have to belabor the point, she said, and it’s important to stay calm yourself.
“If parents are saying with their words, ‘It’s fine, it’s nothing to worry about, we have our masks to keep us safe,’ but with their body language and their actions, they’re modeling a different emotional reaction, kids are going to pick up on that,” Read said.
That doesn’t mean you discount your kid’s anxiety. If your child is feeling anxious about all of this, and is making that clear to you, it’s OK to validate that. We’re all feeling anxious right now, Read said, and we’re dealing with a huge amount of uncertainty. Let them know that it’s OK to feel that way.
6. Remember: masks are NOT a replacement for social distancing or hand-washing.
While there are arguments to be made in favor of having kids wear masks in public, some experts are wary of the potential downsides.
“Actually using a mask in any kind of responsible way is really very tricky,” said Enriquez, the emergency medicine doctor. “I’m not a huge fan of recommending this, because I worry it encourages people to go out and do the things they shouldn’t be doing, to be honest.”
The most important thing you as a parent can do right now is to make sure your kids are staying home as much as possible, and that you’re staying diligent about good hand-washing.
“The guidance is still to be staying at home and to do social distancing and avoid high-touch areas,” Enriquez said. “The masks are for when people have to go out and interact in the world and want to protect others from them.”
A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus