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Face Masks and Kids: How to Make a Mask Your Kids Will Wear

young boy in a face mask

Key Takeaways

  • The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of two wear cloth face masks when in public to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • Facial coverings are just another preventative measure and are not meant to replace hand washing and social distancing.
  • Wearing a mask is about protecting other people and is often the most altruistic way of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Masks do not have to be expensive—parents can create simple masks from everyday items found at home.
  • Getting a young child to wear a mask is easier when parents turn it into a game or a challenge.

As the United States continues to grapple with how to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, there has been much debate about the use of masks by the general public—especially with personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers in short supply.

Previously, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that masks weren't necessary unless someone was symptomatic, meaning they were coughing and sneezing and had a fever. The thinking behind this decision was twofold:

  • First, the CDC was concerned that people would begin hoarding masks that are in short supply and desperately needed by those in the medical field.
  • Second, unless the masks are N-95 respirators, they don't necessarily prevent people from getting the coronavirus, and they feared wearing them would give people a false sense of security. Masks are primarily used to prevent additional spread from infected people.

However, in light of several studies indicating that the coronavirus can be spread by people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, the CDC is recommending that people begin wearing masks in public, especially in areas where social distancing measures are hard to maintain. Examples might include while grocery shopping or picking up medications from pharmacies. Masks also are highly encouraged where there is significant community spread.

Still, it's important that people recognize that wearing masks is an additional preventative measure and not meant to replace the need for social distancing, maintaining six feet of separation when out, washing your hands, and refraining from touching your face.

These cloth face coverings, made from everyday items most people have at home, are designed to keep people who may unknowingly have the disease from spreading it to other people. If you or your children are sick, you should not be out in public unless you're getting medical care.

masks, bandana, scarf

How Effective Are Homemade Masks?

Obviously, when it comes to masks, the most effective way to avoid getting the coronavirus is by wearing an N-95 respirator. But, these masks are in low supply and are desperately needed by healthcare workers on the front lines. Even surgical masks are not recommended for the general public because they are needed by those in the medical field.

So, to protect the public while avoiding shortages, the CDC is recommending that people wear cloth face masks while in public, especially in dense urban areas where people come in close contact with one another on sidewalks, on public transportation, or in apartment buildings.

As far as the effectiveness of homemade masks though, scientists disagree on whether or not they are effective. Some researchers worry that cloth masks could potentially absorb viral particles instead of acting as a barrier, doing more harm than good. Additionally, not wearing a mask properly or removing it haphazardly could transfer the virus to the hands and face putting people at risk.

What's more, one study found that cloth masks only block about 3% of particles compared to surgical masks, which blocked 53% of the particles. Meanwhile, the N-95 respirators stopped 99.9% of particles. But surgical masks and N-95 respirators cannot be used more than once unless they are sterilized with highly specialized equipment.

Meanwhile, another study, often called the Cambridge study, found that cloth masks made from T-shirts, pillowcases, or tea towels filtered out a third of all particles and were better than no protection at all. The researchers also noted that while masks reduce the likelihood of infection, they do not completely eliminate the risk.

Consequently, any mask—no matter how good the filtration—will have minimal success if it's not used in conjunction with other preventative measures like social distancing and good hygiene. So, with other masks in limited supply—and needed for those most at risk—wearing cloth masks seems like the best, and most altruistic, option for the general public.

How to Make Masks for Your Kids

The CDC maintains that cloth masks could slow transmission by preventing people who have the virus from spreading it to others. Consequently, they recently released a guide on how to make a cloth face mask at home with a bandana, a coffee filter, and hair ties and is urging the general public to begin wearing masks when going out.

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Make Your Own No-Sew Face Mask

Their online instructions include options for people who can sew and options for those who cannot. They suggest using cotton fabric like bed sheets, pillowcases, T-shirts, or bandanas and ensuring that the masks have multiple layers, fit snugly, and can be washed without damaging the material.

To make a mask at home, begin with clean hands, a clean surface, and clean material. For the "no-sew" method, they suggest cutting off the bottom of a T-shirt. Then, you cut a notch in the fabric, which leaves you with strings to tie around the top of your child's head and at the base of their neck.

Another "no-sew" option offered by the CDC, includes using a square bandana and folding it over a small piece of coffee filter. Then, you put a hair tie or rubber band on each end. Fold the ends around each tie or band to secure them. These bands are used to secure the mask behind your child's ears.

Because children are smaller than adults, it may be easier to use one of their T-shirts to make a mask rather than a bandana or a pillowcase. Then you can tie the T-shirt around their head and neck for a secure fit. It's also more difficult for them to take off than the masks with the hair ties.

Of course, if you don't like the CDC's guidelines, there are multiple tutorials online for making masks. For instance, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia offers a fairly simple tutorial as does Children's Wisconsin. Another option is Jennifer Maker's mask, which includes an optional filter pocket.

Maker created her mask with input from her brother-in-law who is a respiratory therapist. On her website, she also references the Cambridge study mentioned above and details the effectiveness of various types of filters including coffee filters, HEPA-filtered vacuum bags, and more.

Meanwhile, an upcycling boutique, Suay Sew Shop in Los Angeles, studied various filters and found that two "blue shop towels" are most effective at filtering out fine particles. After purchasing a particle-counter device that measures filtration and breathability, the owners of Suay realized that placing two stretchy blue shop towels into an ordinary cotton mask drastically improved its filtration abilities. What's more, the shop towels can be washed two to three times before losing their ability to filter out particles.

Regardless of how you construct your masks, make sure they fit snugly on your child's face without restricting their breathing. They also should be washable in order to keep them sanitary. And as tempting as it might be to purchase N-95 respirators or surgical masks, the CDC asks that the general public refrain from doing so, as these are in low supply and needed by those working in the medical field.

How to Get Kids to Wear a Mask

During shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, the best option is to leave kids at home with another family member rather than taking them out. After all, there is some research indicating that kids can not only become vectors for the disease, but they also are at risk for getting infected. However, when you simply have no choice but to bring your children with you, you need to have a mask on hand.

But how do you get kids to wear the masks, especially if they are younger? Here are some suggestions to make the process go a little smoother.

Be Honest (But Not Scary)

Regardless of your child's age, be honest about why masks are important. You don't have to go into a lot of detail, and you should keep it age-appropriate, but be open with your kids about the coronavirus.

Explain to them that wearing a mask helps keep the people around them safe. Resist the urge to dramatize the situation or to share more information than is needed. Instead, use the concept of wearing a mask as an opportunity to teach altruism and empathy.

Get Your Kids Involved in the Design

One way to get your kids to buy into the idea of wearing a mask, is to get them involved in the design process. Allow them to choose which fabric they want to use such as an old T-shirt or a pillowcase with their favorite cartoon character. Even a plain white shirt or bedsheet that they can use fabric paint on will work. The key is that they selected the fabric for the mask.

Turn the Mask Into a Costume

If you decide to use fabric paint on your child's mask, help them turn it into a character or animal. For instance, it's easy to paint a nose and whiskers on the mask to make a dog, cat, or rabbit. Pair it with some ears that you have leftover from Halloween and you may find that your kids cannot wait to wear their masks.

If your child wants to be a nurse or doctor when they grow up, show them pictures of those in the medical field wearing masks. Even policemen and firemen wear masks these days. They can pretend to be one of these professionals while wearing their masks.

Make a Mask for a Buddy

Some children may be more likely to wear a mask if their "buddy" wears one too. So, if your child has a favorite teddy bear, an American Girl doll they take everywhere, or another favorite toy, make a mask for them as well. Then, when you go out, their buddy can come along as long as they are wearing their mask too.

Do a Trial Run

Wearing a mask is a new experience for most children. So, the first few times your kids wear a mask, they may complain that it's scratchy or that they cannot breathe. In fact, most children won't like the idea of wearing a mask.

For this reason, try out the mask at home. Have your child wear it for 30 minutes. Practice putting it on safely and not touching it once it's in place. Afterward, talk to your kids about how it felt to wear it. And if needed, make adjustments to the mask while still ensuring that it fits properly.

Offer a Reward

Sometimes kids respond positively to doing something they dread when they know there is a reward at the end. As a result, you can incentivize your kids to wear their masks and provide them with something to look forward to when they get home. For instance, maybe they get a sticker for their chart, an ice cream cone, or even an extra hour of television for following the rules while out in public. You know what motivates your child, so choose accordingly.

Turn it Into a Game

Another option for motivating your kids to wear a mask, is to turn it into a game. Just like the "no talking game" or the "who can go the longest without blinking" game, create a game out of wearing masks. For instance, have everyone start with 10 points. Every time someone touches their mask to adjust it, they lose a point. By the time you get home, the person with the most remaining points wins the game.

How to Use a Face Mask Safely

Using a cloth mask appropriately is extremely important. Otherwise, you and your children run the risk of spreading germs unnecessarily to yourself and to others. Additionally, the CDC warns that cloth face coverings should not be used on children under the age of two. They also should not be worn by anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, or is incapacitated in some way.

If your child is over two years old and otherwise healthy, it's probably safe for them to wear a mask if you have to go out. Once you have washed your child's mask and it's ready to be used, here are some important steps in using the mask on safely and effectively:

Preparing to Wear the Mask

  • Explain to your children that it's time to put on their masks
  • Remind them that they cannot touch the masks once they are on nor should they remove them without permission
  • Allow enough time for discussion and try not to rush your child through the process, especially if this will be their first time wearing a mask outside
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before touching the mask
  • Have your children wash their hands as well

Putting the Mask On

  • Pick up the mask by the ties or straps with clean hands and attach it securely to your child's face
  • Be sure that the mask fits snugly but that your child can still breathe effectively
  • Adjust the fabric near the bridge of the nose to make a tight fit (some people find that putting your child's glasses or even sunglasses over the edge of the mask helps it stay in place, but this is not required)
  • Make sure your children are comfortable in their masks and remind them again that they shouldn't touch it and that they should leave it in place
  • Wash your hands again keeping in mind that you touched the mask and your child's face
  • Have your child wash their hands

Taking the Mask Off

  • Wash your hands before touching the mask and have your child do the same
  • Remind your kids not to touch their face even after the mask has been removed
  • Remove the mask by the ties or straps
  • Place the mask immediately in your washing machine or in a plastic bag
  • Have your children wash their hands and their faces after removing the mask
  • Wash your hands and face thoroughly as well
  • Clean the mask in your washing machine and dry it in the dryer before using it again
  • Wash your hands before handling the clean mask (both when removing it from the washer and from the dryer and before putting it on again)

Keep in mind that anytime you handle your cloth face masks, you should be washing your hands before and after. Additionally, cloth face masks should never be worn a second time until they have been washed.

In addition to being dirty from your child's saliva, the masks likely contain germs and other contaminants. Putting the mask on again without washing it only increases your child's chance of infection. In fact, a study published in the Lancet found that the coronavirus could survive on cloth for at least a day and on surgical masks for up to seven days.

What This Means For You

While masks may be an important step in reducing community spread of the virus, they are only one preventative measure. The best advice is to stay home as much as possible. And if you do have to go out, leave your kids at home with a family member if you can. Practicing good social distancing habits and washing your hands frequently is still the best way to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Homemade masks just add another layer of protection.

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Article Sources
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  2. Davies A, Thompson KA, Giri K, Kafatos G, Walker J, Bennett A. Testing the efficacy of homemade masks: would they protect in an influenza pandemic?. Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2013;7(4):413-8. doi:10.1017/dmp.2013.43

  3. Feng S, Shen C, Xia N, et al. Rational use of face masks in the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet Respir Med 2020. doi:10.1016/ S2213-2600(20)30134-X

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