DEAR MAYO CLINC: Recently there has been a directive to have everyone wear masks when out in public. Although I have limited outings to essential things such as the grocery store, with certain states "opening back up," my children are asking about playing with friends and going on more outings in general. I am a single mom with three children, ages 15 months, 4 and 14. I'm wondering whether they need to wear masks when outside, with friends or when it is appropriate.
ANSWER: During this COVID-19 pandemic, we certainly have heard a lot about face masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that Americans wear cloth masks in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
Although the majority of information has been geared toward adults, as the direction around face masks has changed quickly over recent weeks it's important to understand what is necessary now that the guidance is for everyone, including children older than 2, to wear face masks when they are out in public.
As a mother of three children myself, ages 18 months to 6, I have been actively looking at the issue myself. Like my family, only your two older children would need masks. Although we want to protect our littlest babies, newborns or children younger than 2 have small airways and we don't want to obstruct their breathing. As well, we can protect them in other ways, such as having them in a baby carrier or sling, which can make it harder for them to reach out and touch things.
Because social distancing recommendations remain in place, it's good to review when you might require a mask and when you can forgo one. For instance, if you are going for a walk around the neighborhood and unlikely to be around other groups of people, I do not think a mask is necessary in those situations, and that's been outlined in the guidelines. However, if you're not sure that you can safely social distance when you're out with your family, then that's when you really want to think about that face mask for your child.
For instance, as a single parent, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to take your 4-year-old to the store with you. You would want to make sure that child has a mask on in that situation. If you need to have an office visit with a health care provider, you will want to have a face covering. At Mayo Clinic, all patients and visitors are now asked to cover their nose and mouth.
Though masks can be difficult to find, my recommendation is to always use cloth masks because they can be more comfortable for youngsters (and adults). And because our children come in different sizes, it is important to find a mask that is not too big or too tight. There also are many options to make your own. You will want to ensure that you assist your children with putting their mask on so that it covers their nose and mouth.
One downfall of the new masking recommendations is that we're finding that people have a tendency to touch their face more often. Our kids are no different. They will want to touch the mask and play with it. One idea to consider is to practice masking at home before you go out so your kids can get used to having something on their face. It is also very important to continue reminding your children to keep their hands down and be diligent about hand-washing. You will want to ensure you are washing your face more often as well.
If your children are anything like mine, they are tired of being cooped up at home and miss their friends. Even though some states may be easing restrictions, I would say it's still important to adhere to the established social distancing guidelines and not a good time to start having play dates with friends.
Unfortunately, I think with the recommendations regarding face masks, some families might feel like that means that they can do certain things together with other families, with friends, as long as they're wearing a mask. The intent with more universal masking is to have another layer of protection for ourselves and for our communities if you have to be out in public at the grocery or at a doctor's office — those sorts of experiences. It is not meant for us to start doing things with our friends and neighbors or having large family gatherings because we can wear face masks.
Your children might have a lot of questions and confusion still around COVID-19, especially if they are old enough to hear news reports or are on social media. For me, as a mom, I feel like it's my job to give my children the best information possible and give it to them in a safe environment. And that means having those honest conversations about what we can and cannot do. But it also means being a little bit more thoughtful about how much they are getting from those sources in terms of the news as well.
Although the future is uncertain related to COVID-19, we are hopeful that improvements will continue and we will be able to get our families back to their normal routines soon. Stay positive and encourage your children to do the same.
If you have questions specific to your family's situation or concerns with masking, I would encourage you to reach out to your health care provider. — Tina Ardon, M.D., Family Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida
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