As official health guidelines on wearing face coverings in public shift, some parents are wondering whether their children should be wearing masks when they go outside.
The answer, in short, is yes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children 2 years and older should wear "cloth face coverings" when they are "in the community setting" to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Other CDC guidelines specify that face coverings should be made from "simple cloth ... fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials," noting that people should not wear surgical masks or N-95 respirators needed by health care workers and medical first responders.
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Why should children be wearing masks?
Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and youth development speaker, said that since children are more likely to spread the virus, they should wear masks as often as possible.
"Kids are much more likely to be asymptotic carriers or presymptomatic carriers, so ... we do a lot of good when we say, 'Hey, in addition to washing your hands, and please stop licking things, we'd also like you to wear a mask,'" Gilboa told TODAY Parents. "We really want to slow and stop the spread of this, and we're seeing in data from other countries that kids are actively involved, entirely accidentally, in spreading this."
Dr. Jamie Macklin, a pediatric hospitalist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, stressed the importance of not allowing babies and children under 2 to wear masks.
"Babies and young toddlers have smaller airways," Macklin said. "Breathing through a mask can be harder for them. Using a mask on an infant can increase their risk of suffocation."
Gilboa agreed that babies and toddlers should not wear masks that "could be a choking hazard," telling parents to make sure that the material and strings do not pose risks to little ones. Macklin said the CDC also tells people not to put masks on anyone who may not be able to remove the mask by themselves, providing yet another reason why babies should not be masked.
When should kids wear masks?
Gilboa said kids should wear masks whenever they leave the house. This way, they won't "forget" to put them on if they encounter people.
"We don't want to count on kids remembering," she said. "If we're going to send them and say, 'Drop this outside Grandma's door and then leave,' we might tell that kid not to get within 6 feet of other people on the sidewalk or whatever, but it doesn't mean they're going to pull that off. It's a reasonable time and place to say, 'If you're going for a walk, you should wear a mask.'"
Macklin said that with babies and children under the age of 2, parents can take measures like maintaining social distancing and putting a cover over a baby carrier to keep kids safe.
"Even though infants and toddlers aren't supposed to be wearing these masks, parents should still be social distancing and avoiding public areas," Macklin said. "If going out is absolutely essential, we would recommend covering the baby seat itself with a blanket to help protect the baby but give them the ability to breathe comfortably."
Gilboa also cautioned that parents needed to remember that masks aren't meant to prevent children from contracting the coronavirus.
"Masks are the same as social distancing," Gilboa said. "We do it to protect each other. ... I wear a mask to protect you, and you wear a mask to protect me."
How can parents get their kids to wear masks?
Gilboa said children might not be too excited about wearing masks, but there are ways to get them more on board with the process.
"Have them make it and decorate it," she suggested. "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."
To get kids more on board with wearing masks, Gilboa said it's important that adults "model the behavior that they want to see" from their kids — which means they should wear masks whenever their kids are being asked to wear masks. Gilboa added that it's important for parents to have empathy while still enforcing the boundaries.
"Treat it exactly the same way you treated them wearing pants when they didn't want to," Gilboa said. "'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."
She also said it's important to help kids understand that wearing face coverings and masks will help other people afflicted with coronavirus or affected by social distancing.
"Kids are looking for stuff they can control," Gilboa said. "There's research that shows that kids are less likely to do something to keep themselves safe, but more likely to do something to keep other people safe. ... Help them feel like the hero that they are by wearing that mask."
This story was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated.