As we move through the re-opening phases of the coronavirus pandemic, we are going to see a lot more people wearing masks in public. Most everyone is starting to enjoy the warmer weather and shaking off the cabin fever associated with the shelter-in-place orders.

The masks can be unsettling for children, and they may have questions about them. Below are some common questions and answers that can help parents respond to children and calm their worries.

Why does everyone wear masks in public?

The mask is a way to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Everyone is being asked to take steps to prevent spreading the virus from person to person.  Physically distancing is one way to accomplish this, which means maintaining six feet of distance from others. We are all becoming aware of how stores are marking the floor/ground to help remind us and ensure appropriate physical distance. However, when you are in public places it may not be possible to keep that far apart from others. You may pass closely or interact with others in grocery stores, at gas stations, or in the park.  In those cases, it makes sense to have a mask on, as well as do your best to physically distance.   

What do the masks do?

Masks, or facial coverings, are mainly to prevent the person wearing the mask from generating droplets from breathing, coughing, sneezing, etc.  It is these droplets that can carry a virus from one person to another.

If you are sick it is recommended to stay home and not go to public places even with a mask or facial covering on. Surgical or hospital grade masks also provide protection from acquiring the virus from others and are combined with face shields for further droplet as well as eye protection.  These types of personal protective equipment are used by medical personnel and first responders to protect them while they do their jobs.

If the coronavirus is mostly impacting older individuals, why do children need to wear masks too?

Even if someone does not appear sick, they could be infected with the virus. That person could then spread the virus before being sick, so a universal approach to everyone wearing a mask is important. 

Children who are infected with the coronavirus often have mild illness, or are completely asymptomatic, meaning they never have symptoms. However, they are still able to spread the virus. This is why children should also wear masks and do their best to practice physical distancing. It’s important to note that children under two years-of-age should not be masked as they are too young to understand and could be at risk of suffocation from a facial covering.

Should masks be worn at home?

Generally, there is no need for a mask at home or in your car when you are with only people from your household.  If, however, there is a sick or vulnerable person at home, then family members should wear a mask when they are within six feet of that person. 

There are resources for guidance on how to manage sick persons at home from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Sick or exposed persons can mask themselves to also prevent spread.

Are there creative things parents can do to get children to wear a mask?

This is still very new for us, and any change can be challenging. There will be developmental challenges for kids wearing masks, such as tantrums, that parents may have a hard time managing.  

Giving children age-specific reasons for wearing the mask can be very helpful, meeting your child at their level and answering their questions. You can first just start with holding it and talking about it. Move on to practice wearing the mask at home with your child and using the mirror for more engagement. Be sure your child can see clearly.

It could be fun to decorate the mask with your child using markers, stickers, and other things that will engage your child and increase their ownership of the mask. Families can make a mask from a favorite cloth pattern or order from companies that have kid-friendly versions, which can be a helpful way to get kids to buy in.  

Remember, practicing patience and repeatedly working with your child now will be essential.

Why is handwashing important?

Until we have a vaccine, handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of virus, along with social distancing and wearing a mask.  Be sure you are washing or cleaning your hands when transitioning between locations, such as coming back inside your home or before re-entering your car after shopping. Keep hand sanitizer with you. If you practice good hand hygiene there is no reason for the general use of gloves for the public.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a great website with lots of topical and timely information for parents.

For more health and wellness tips for children, visit the Growing section of our Lifespan Living blog.

Michael Koster, MD

Dr. Michael Koster is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and a hospitalist at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.