Months ago when the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) recommended Americans start using homemade cloth face masks to protect against the coronavirus parents had a lot of questions—a recurring one being "how will I convince my child to wear one?
As schools prepare to reopen, districts in various parts of the country will require students to wear masks to class come fall, making the question even more urgent.
So how do we get children used to wearing masks? Here's what experts recommend:
1. Model mask-wearing yourself to normalize face masks
Especially for kids who didn't go many places this summer, wearing a mask can feel strange and even produce some anxiety. "A smiling face helps to provide reassurance to kids, and when they can't see who is beneath the mask, and are required to wear a mask themselves, it can be scary and uncomfortable for young kids," says Dr. Lauren Grodin, PsyD, a psychologist at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, "We need to help children understand why it's important to be safe, accept this new requirement, learn to cope with it, and feel comfortable."
Getting our kids comfortable with mask-wearing starts with wearing them ourselves. When they see a parent wearing a mask they will be more likely to wear their own, and they will learn that they don't have to be scary. Try giving lots of non-facial signs of positivity while wearing your mask—more verbal affirmations instead of smiles and more "thumbs up".
2. Get your kids some control over which mask they wear
Experts say kids are more likely to wear a mask if they get to pick it out themselves. "Getting a child-friendly mask probably increases compliance with wearing," Anna Davies, a research facilitator who previously worked in the Infectious Diseases department at the University of Cambridge, tells NBC News. "Let's face it, looking like Spiderman is going to be a lot more appealing than a plain mask!"
"Have them make it and decorate it," Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician, tells Today Parents. "It was the same thing with bike helmets when we first started requiring kids wear them. Lots of parents said, 'They don't like how they look, they're not comfortable, they're not cool, my kid won't do it.' ... We said the same things. Can they pick out their bike helmet, can they decorate it, can they pick the color? If you can give your kid some autonomy about it, not about when or where but about what, that might help."
3. Make mask-wearing a rule
In some parts of the United States, local governments are requiring citizens to wear masks when they leave their homes, but the CDC's statement on face masks is only a recommendation.
However, some school districts will be requiring masks and public health experts are strongly recommending masks for everyone going in public, even kids. The CDC wants people to wear masks when they are in a community setting, not to avoid catching COVID-19 but to avoid getting other people sick. "A cloth face covering is not intended to protect the wearer, but it may prevent the spread of virus from the wearer to others," the CDC's guidance notes.
Because children do not seem to get as sick as adults when they have COVID-19 they can unknowingly be carriers. The best way to protect our kids and our communities as our communities reopen is to wear a mask in public, and that's why families should consider making mask wearing a rule, like wearing a helmet on a bike ride or wearing shoes outdoors.
"Treat it exactly the same way you treated them wearing pants when they didn't want to," Gilboa tells Today Parents. "'Sorry, sweetie, it's a rule. You can't go outside without pants. Now, because of what's going on, you can't go out without wearing a mask.' ... I can have empathy for the fact that they don't like it, but that doesn't change the rules."
4. Masks are only for kids over 2 years old
Babies under 2 years old should not wear masks, according to the CDC, as they can increase the risk of suffocation. The CDC's website states: "Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children younger than 2 years of age, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the cover without assistance."
Bottom line: Parents can successfully encourage kids over to wear masks
We're in an unprecedented time and that means we're having to do things differently to protect our kids and our communities. Wearing a mask is different and new, but it can help us return to some old familiar things, like open schools.
[A version of this post was first published April 8, 2020. It has been updated.]