Kids health

Should your kid be wearing a mask in public?

There's a lot of confusion over masks. We explain why they're now recommended, when your kid needs one and how often they need to be cleaned. (Hint: You'll need a lot of them.)

If we’ve learned anything since the pandemic started, it’s that we’d all better get used to things being different. And that includes what we and our kids wear on our faces, now that health officials in both Canada and the United States have advised that wearing cloth masks could help prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Surgical and N95 masks should be left for medical professionals.) 

But parents have questions: Should kids wear masks too? And if so, what if they flat out refuse? We took your questions to the experts. 

What is the point of wearing masks?

According to Scott Needle, a paediatrician in Sacramento and a member of American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council, when members of the public wear masks it’s mostly to prevent the spread of the virus by reducing the spray of respiratory droplets. In other words: The point is to stop you from giving the virus to someone else.

“Wearing a cloth mask may keep you from getting the coronavirus, but they’re not very effective,” says Needle. The problem, he says, is that many are just too loose. Note that cloth masks that both the Centers for Disease Control and the Public Health Agency of Canada are recommending are quite different from the N95 masks that health professionals wear when dealing with coronavirus patients. “Those are a very tight fit,” he says. “They’re not comfortable and they are hard to breathe through.”

If they aren’t sick, should kids wear masks?

Actually, no. “We now know that people can transmit the infection in the 48 hours before they show symptoms or when they have the infection and show no symptoms at all,” explains Jason Brophy, a infectious disease doctor at CHEO, a paediatric hospital and research centre in Ottawa. That’s why officials are now saying wearing a mask in public is a reasonable step to prevent the spread. “Kids are more likely to have mild or asymptomatic infection compared to older adults, so it may be a good idea for them to wear masks in public.” 

Even if your kid has been practicing physical distancing, there’s still a remote chance they’ve caught the virus, says Brophy. “They might still have touched a surface when outside the home that was contaminated and that could have given them the infection. This pandemic will go on for a while, so it is good to get used to practices that will protect us all over time.”

Should kids wear masks all the time outdoors?

Masks are recommended when it’s not possible to stay away from other people. So if your kid is playing in the yard, or even on a neighbourhood walk, they don’t need to wear a mask if they are able to avoid people by doing things like stepping to the side or crossing the street. However, in cases where kids cannot easily stay far away from other people—like at a grocery store or on public transit—then a mask is a helpful way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “Hopefully you can leave them at home in these situations. But for single parents with younger kids, for example, they’re not going to be able to,” says Needle. 

It’s important to note that kids under 2 years of age should not wear masks because of the risk of strangulation. If your child is having difficulty breathing with the mask on, or is unable to take off without assistance, then they also shouldn’t be wearing one. 

How can I get my kid to wear a mask?

Practice! Help your child get comfortable with the idea of wearing a mask by talking to them about how they can help prevent the spread of the virus and having them try it on at home before wearing it out in public. You can also get buy-in by allowing your kid to decorate their mask with markers, or, if possible, let them pick out or make a fun design. “There are a lot of recommendations online to make their own,” says Needle. “The more kids are active participants, as opposed to someone telling them they have to do it, the more willing they’ll be to do it.” 

Parents can also normalize mask-wearing by wearing one themselves, and showing kids pictures of other kids wearing masks. 

How do I clean my kid’s mask?

Brophy says kids should wash their hands before putting it on and after removing it, and should avoid touching the mask while they wear it. If they do touch the mask, they should wash their hands afterwards. 

He adds that masks should be washed daily in hot water, and also when they get dirty (for example, from a sneeze). You should always assume the mask is contaminated after its worn, which means being careful not to touch the cloth part (hold it by the handles) and washing your hands after handling it. 

It’s really important to remember that wearing a mask is not a replacement for other things we’ve been doing to stop the spread of coronavirus, like staying at home and frequent handwashing. “Even if you have the mask, it’s still important to follow those precautions,” says Needle.

It’s impossible to know how this pandemic will play out, but there’s a real possibility that wearing a mask becomes commonplace in the future, as workplaces and schools begin to reopen. “Although it is hard to predict all the ways in which our lives will be changed going forward, in many parts of the world, wearing a mask when ill with a cough or cold is common practice to reduce spreading it to others, so it may become a practice or recommendation for us here in Canada as well,” says Brophy.