In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all people ages 2 and up wear face masks in indoor public settings if they are not fully vaccinated. Additionally, fully vaccinated people can maximize their protection by wearing masks inside public places in areas with high COVID-19 transmission.
If you’re the parent of a young child who can’t yet be vaccinated, the CDC’s recommendation might raise some questions, such as: Why can’t children under 2 wear face masks? And how should babies and young children stay safe in public settings without masks?
Why shouldn’t babies wear face masks?
If your child is under the age of 2, the CDC says he shouldn’t wear a face mask, in part because he may struggle to breathe through one.
Infants and younger toddlers have smaller airways and aren’t able to vocalize if they can’t breathe well. “If they have trouble breathing while wearing the mask, they can’t tell you they’re having trouble breathing,” says Patricia Garcia, M.D., a pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s hospital.
Some masks could also pose a choking hazard, says Ashanti Woods, M.D., a pediatrician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. For example, the strings on some face masks could be dangerous for babies.
What’s more, many babies and toddlers under the age of 2 would likely try to remove a mask if one was put on.
Toddlers past their second birthday can safely wear face masks. Need some ideas? Here are some of our favorite masks for children ages 2 and up.
How should babies and toddlers stay safe in public settings?
In a perfect world, if you lived in an area with high COVID-19 transmission, you’d keep your child away from public places like the grocery store or pharmacy.
“The best option is to avoid taking your kids anywhere crowded,” Dr. Garcia says.
But of course, that’s often simply not possible. If you have to take your young child in public, experts say it’s a good idea to take the following precautions:
- Wear your baby. If your child is still small enough to fit in a baby carrier, face him toward you and try to keep him close to your body, Dr. Woods says.
- Carry your baby in his car seat with a cover. It can be heavy to tote your child around in their seat, but covering the car seat with a breathable fabric can help, says Julia Sammons, M.D., medical director of the Department of Infection Prevention and Control at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
- Push your child in his stroller with a cover. If you have a plastic rain cover for your stroller, Dr. Woods says that’s a good option. If not, a breathable fabric can also work.
- Put your stroller awning down. If you don’t have a stroller cover or forgot a covering, putting your stroller’s awning down is better than nothing, says Daniel S. Ganjian, M.D., F.A.A.P., a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
What types of face masks should children 2 and up wear?
The CDC recommends that children 2 and up wear face masks, specifically something that meets these guidelines:
- Goes over the nose and under the chin
- Fits snugly against the side of the face and doesn’t have gaps
When it comes to the different types of masks, the CDC says well-fitting disposable surgical masks, KN95s and N95s offer more protection than cloth masks, but the best kind of mask is one your child will wear correctly. A cloth mask made with multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric and a nose wire will still offer protection against COVID-19.
Of course, even with the right mask on hand, it can be tough to get your kid to actually wear it. Giving your child ownership of their mask can help, Ganjian says. “Get a cloth mask that they can color on or that has a design they like,” he says.
Additionally, you can get your child a mask that matches yours and talk about how you’re a team. “You can also come up with an incentive afterward,” Dr. Ganjian says.