Wearing matching masks, Anthony Sockabasin-Martin, 6, and his mom Lisa Sockabasin smile as they watch something on Lisa’s phone while attending an event on June 18. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Convincing fidgety children to do anything can be a challenge. When it comes to wearing masks, especially as the school year nears, getting your kids to don face coverings is a matter of public health.

Even if your children don’t seem sick, it is essential that they wear masks because they are likely not to show symptoms even if they are infected, according to Noah Nesin, vice president of the board of directors of the Maine Public Health Association. Like all of us, though, children aren’t used to wearing masks.

“Younger children might especially struggle with keeping a mask on,” Nesin said. “It can get uncomfortable, our face can get sweaty, it can get itchy.”

Children with special educational or healthcare needs may struggle to wear masks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. However, masks are still recommended for all children older than two years old who are able to remove the cloth face coverings themselves.

“We get a lot of questions around asthma,” Nesin said. “There really is no reason that a child with asthma shouldn’t wear a mask. Really, there are very few reasons why a child can’t wear a mask.”

Making sure kids are used to wearing masks — and doing so properly — is especially important as schools prepare for potential reopening.

“We want to get kids back to school, which means we need to keep the pandemic in check,” said Kristen Martin, pediatrician and medical director at Penobscot Pediatrics. “We’re setting ourselves up for the best results for having a successful school year.”

Choose a comfortable mask

Children are more likely to wear a mask if it is comfortable. That comes down to fabric choice (for tactile comfort) and how the mask is kept on — such as with ear loops or ties.

“Some kids may be sensitive to different types of materials,” said Jackie Farwell, communications director at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “Some may prefer a t-shirt fabric [or a] knit for a layer next to the skin.”

For the way it’s kept on, there are several options. But the best one is the one that is most comfortable to your child.

“You have to make sure it’s not pulling too tightly on the ears — kids won’t tolerate that for long,” Nesin said. “Having the earpieces be adjustable so that you can make sure there’s no tension on the back of their ears is critical.”

A mask with ties instead of elastic ear loops may also work better for your child, but Nesin warned against using that style for young children due to the risk of strangulation.

Once you have masks, they will need to be cleaned after each day’s wear. Nesin also said to avoid any fabric or cleaning method — using scented fabric softeners or dryer sheets when washing, for example, or scented filters — that has strong smells attached to it.

If your child is really struggling with the comfort of their mask, you might want to consider a gaiter-style mask or a face shield.

“[Face shields] are a reasonable substitute for children that can’t wear masks,” Nesin said. “The key is that they really need to go from the forehead down below the chin, and you have to clean them [with] something that actually kills the coronavirus but doesn’t cloud the shield.”

Make sure the mask fits

It is important to make sure your child’s mask fits around their nose, ears and chin.

“It should be snug, but not tight,” Martin said. “When you take a deep breath there should be a little indentation in the mask when they breathe.”

Nesin said not to worry about slight gaps in the sides of the mask.

“We’re not trying to create a seal on their face, we’re trying to keep respiratory droplets close to their face,” he said.

For younger children, Nesin said to avoid masks with a wire in the bridge of the nose. Their noses aren’t yet fully formed and the wire could cause the mask to ride up into their eyes.

For older children, though, masks with bendable wires over the bridge of the nose can be used. And, for those with corrective lenses, can prevent fogging in glasses. Nesin also recommended using an anti-fogging spray or shaving cream on kids’ glasses’ lenses to prevent fogging.

Farwell warned that even if the size specifies an age group, it may not fit properly. You may need to try several styles and sizes for kids, especially with children who wear glasses or hearing aids.

Find fun patterns and colors

Kids are much more likely to wear masks if they like the way that they look. You can make your child a mask with a fabric pattern that they love, or customize a mask with fun additions like tie-dye, iron-on letters or patches.

“Have kids pick out their mask, or help make face coverings,” Farwell said.

Farwell suggested integrating shopping for masks or fabrics for masks into school supplies shopping.

“They should be able to have a clean mask each day,” Martin said. “Likely, you would need at least five to get through a school week, depending on how often you do laundry.”

Explain to them why they have to wear masks

Besides the comfort and fit of masks, kids need to know that wearing them is important. Speaking frankly and clearly to children about why they need to wear masks will make them more likely to comply.

“Kids understand illness,” Nesin said. “For young children, if you don’t want to scare them, put it in the context of a really bad cold. Explain it to them in a kind way, and they will usually be pretty compliant.”

Nesin said to make sure what you are telling children about wearing a mask is consistent.

“If they’re getting inconsistent messages, they’re going to struggle because they can’t find emotional comfort,” he said.

Keeping your conversations open and honest about it will help.

“It helps to personalize it,” Nesin said. “Talk about the vulnerable people in their own family that could be impacted by the choices that other people make by not wearing a mask. Children of any age respond to honesty [and] authentic conversation.”

For older children, Martin also said to make sure you are listening to their feelings of frustration over having to wear masks.

“Let them know they’re being heard and you understand why they’re annoyed,” Martin said. “Once a teenager feels heard, it’s easier [to get them to wear a mask].”

Model mask wearing for them

If you want to wear your kids to wear masks, you should wear them, too.

“Kids are very attuned with what parents’ preconceived notions are,” Martin said. “If parents are reluctant and have their own reservations about wearing a mask, then kids are, too.”

Martin said to try and make wearing a mask seem like a positive experience for your child, regardless of what your underlying beliefs are.

“Masks are not going away,” Martin said. “One of the best things you can do to get kids on board with wearing masks is to model [wearing masks] yourself.”

Farwell also suggested having kids model face coverings on stuffed animals at home to get them more comfortable with the idea of everyone around them wearing masks as well.

Practice wearing the mask

Like with many tasks, practice makes perfect when it comes to wearing masks.

“Choose a mask and practice taking it on and off,” Martin said. “Now is the perfect opportunity with school starting in a few weeks.”

You can even make these mask practice sessions fun for your kids. Martin said that this is especially helpful for children with developmental issues or anxiety.

“Put on a mask, set a timer, do a fun activity during that time and applaud the successes,” Martin said. “Before you know it, kids will be wearing masks and it will be a non-issue.”

By taking these steps, kids will eventually get used to wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s like wearing glasses: it feels awkward at first, but then you get used to it,” Martin said.