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child wearing mask during COVID-19 pandemic

How to get young kids to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic

Stanford experts provide tips for helping young children learn to wear a cloth mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization issued new recommendations about wearing cloth face masks in public to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And on June 18, Gov. Gavin Newsom began requiring Californians over the age of 2 to wear a mask in indoor public spaces, at work and while using public transportation.

I can imagine the parents of young children shaking their collective weary heads.

Unfortunately, toddlers are notoriously both stubborn and fickle. The idea of convincing one to not only wear a mask regularly, but to also avoid touching or fiddling with it during an outing, seems like an impossibly tall order.

Stanford experts share tips

Fortunately, Amy Price, PhD, and Larry Chu, MD, researchers at Stanford's Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab shared some tips with me that may help.

The two experts know their stuff: Earlier this month, they graciously answered my questions about cloth masks in general -- including how to make, wear and care for them -- while also debunking some common misconceptions that could dissuade people from mask use. Their recent research paper -- which examines the filtration and breathing efficiency of various household materials commonly used to construct cloth masks -- was used by the WHO to form the organization's new guidelines.

But what about children? Price suggests:

  • Wear a mask together. Look in the mirror with the face coverings on, and talk about it. Take pictures with masks on and send the photos to grandparents and other relatives.
  • Put a cloth face covering on a favorite stuffed animal.
  • Decorate the masks so they're more personalized and fun. Make it a fashion statement, or emulate a favorite cartoon or television character.
  • Show your child pictures of other children and families wearing cloth masks.
  • Draw one on their favorite book character, or have the child do so.
  • Practice wearing the face covering at home in small spurts, and increase the time to help your child get used to it. Make a fun game out of it!
  • Use rewards: "When you can wear the mask for 30 seconds we can do..."
  • Have your child buy a mask for someone who does not have one.
  • Encourage the child to name the mask and care for it themselves. (You can find mask care instructions here.)

Training gradually

Price and Chu emphasize that it's important to train a child gradually to use a mask, and to explain in a clear, non-scary way why masks are needed. It's also very important to be sure the mask fits correctly and is not overly tight or chaffing. A series of short videos featuring Chu discussing cloth masks can be found on the AIM lab YouTube channel.

"Kids will do what their parents are doing," Price noted:

Children become highly imaginative around ages three to four, so incorporating favorite characters or objects into mask wearing can be key. But the exact approach should be tailored to the developmental age and temperament of each individual child. Hopefully these tips will help.

Photo by Gavin Shoal

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