Face Masks and Babies: Supporting Our Little Ones During the Pandemic
Babies and younger children pay a lot of attention to faces. While their ability to communicate is still developing, they strongly rely on facial expressions and other visual cues to help them understand what is going on around them. Because of this, they might feel upset or anxious when they can’t see your face because you’re wearing a face mask. Some children may feel frightened because they think that you or others look “scary” or different with it on! This reaction is completely natural; after all, when a child can’t see a person’s whole face, it is harder for them to feel safe.
No matter where we live in the world, experts recommend we wear facemasks in public to help stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), because the virus can spread when people cough, sneeze, breathe or talk. Masks act as a physical barrier that helps prevent the virus from spreading between people. Children of all ages might feel confronted or overwhelmed by face masks because they aren’t used to seeing people wearing them. For older children, masks might be frightening because they act as a visual reminder of how the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is affecting our lives. For these reasons, it is important to know how to support and reassure them that face masks are nothing to be concerned about.
Remember: children under two years of age should never wear a mask (due to the risk of suffocation and strangulation for this age group).
One of the simplest yet most important things that parents can do to help their little ones explore their feelings about facemasks is...talking about it! It’s important to communicate with your child about why you are wearing a face mask and what it is, using age-appropriate language. For very young children, use simple language such as “this is a face mask. It goes over my mouth and over my nose like this”. You can also try incorporating your face mask into a game of peek-a-boo, which helps your child associate the mask with a familiar game, making them more comfortable with it. “Where’s mummy? Here I am!” You can laugh and make funny faces every time you take your mask off and encourage your child to laugh along with you.
For older children, you can find out what they know about masks by asking them questions such as, “do you know why I wear a mask over my face when I leave the house?”, or “have you noticed people wearing masks when we go outside?”. This will encourage your child to open up to you with any questions or concerns they may have, which you can then address in a constructive way. When explaining face masks to children, remember to stay positive and focus on the facts; your goal is to reassure them that everything is okay! Think of simple ways to explain why we wear face masks and how together with social distancing and careful hand washing, we are helping stop the spread of the virus.
Gently encourage your child to share their feelings about face masks, especially if you notice that they might be feeling apprehensive or anxious about them. For example, you can ask your child questions such as, “how did you feel about seeing people in face masks when we went out today?” No matter how old your child is, make sure you use a calm and reassuring tone of voice when talking to them about face masks. If you sound calm, it will help your child be calm too.
Something that is important to remember is that masks hide some of our facial expressions, making it more difficult to communicate, especially with smaller children. For this reason, it can be helpful to use exaggerated expressions so that they show in your eyes. Speak loudly, slowly, and clearly if you feel like your child might be having problems understanding you when your mask is on, and make sure to give them plenty of eye contact. Incorporate more body language into your communication style to make it easier to understand you, such as using your hands to gesture towards the thing you are talking about. If your child appears anxious about face masks, make sure to reassure them by giving them extra cuddles and attention when you are at home together and not wearing a mask. Simple things such as these can make a huge difference!
Some fun ways to help children get more comfortable with seeing people in face masks is by incorporating them into play time and doing mask related activities together with them. This can be as simple as buying some colourful face masks with fun patterns and getting your child to help you choose one to wear for the day! You could play a game of dress ups and include masks or dress up your child’s favourite soft toys in masks. If you like, you could even use them to put on a puppet show to help you explain masks in a relaxed way! Another idea can be to make up a story about superheroes who wear face masks, to get your child excited about them and potentially reframe the way that they see masks altogether. You could get your child to draw a picture of family members wearing face masks, or you could even do a craft project and decorate some masks together. The sky really is the limit, so get creative! If you have any other ideas, please share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear them!