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Dear Doctor: Our city requires face masks now, and we’re not sure what’s the best kind for our kids. Our teen wears an adult mask, but we have a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old as well. Do you have any advice?
Dear Reader: We’ve been getting this question a lot as various state and city lockdowns end and we’re all peeking out from our quarantine bunkers. There’s no question that face masks are a vital tool for a safe reentry into public life. They do a good job at blocking our exhaled breath, which helps prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in people who are infected. That said, there are a few caveats. Face coverings should not be worn by children younger than 2 years old, by anyone who has trouble breathing, or by anyone who is unable to remove the mask without assistance from someone else.
The best type of face mask for kids is the one that the child will wear. That’s going to be your guiding principle. Don’t worry too much about details such as the type of material the mask is made of, how it attaches or whether or not it has a filter. The bottom line is that if it’s not comfortable, your child won’t wear it properly. They’ll tug and pull at it or try to readjust it. In the process, they’ll wind up touching their faces, which increases the risk of infection. Even with an optimal mask, a younger child may not be able to tolerate it for extended periods of time. If that’s the case, prioritize mask use for situations when social distancing isn’t easy to maintain. Wearing a mask is particularly important indoors, where people tend to crowd together and where the virus can linger.
As for the masks themselves, they are effective only if they cover both the nose and the mouth. Look for one that’s fitted with a flexible clip on the nose piece. That makes it easy to adjust and customize to your child’s face. Avoid masks with a one-way valve. These allow the exhaled air to escape and do nothing to protect the people around you. Choose a mask that fits over the chin and reaches around the sides of the face. Not only will this give a more secure and comfortable fit, it helps cut down on the amount of air that blows out of the mask, rather than diffusing through the fabric.
If your kids are anything like ours, they have definite opinions about what they like to wear. Giving them a say in choosing their own masks can boost the odds that they’ll actually wear them. Look for washable masks made with two layers of breathable cloth. It may take a few purchases to find the mask your kid prefers. Once you do, get at least two masks per child so it’s easy to keep them clean. Teach kids to avoid touching their faces once the mask is on, and to clean their hands thoroughly once it’s removed.