As South Africa enters stage 4 of our lockdown, wearing face masks in public has become compulsory, something that an increasing number of people have been doing in any case. As a result it’s no big surprise that a whole new industry of home-made masks have emerged. A wide variety of face masks can now be found online in different patterns and materials, allowing you to not only protect, but also accessorise outfits. And this includes masks for children.
Although COVID-19 seems to be less harmful for children than for grown-ups, children are not immune to the disease and can in rare cases even develop more serious complications. Children can also become carriers, spreading the virus to others without having any symptoms themselves.
For this reason, we should offer children the same protection. But does this include a face mask?
Face masks for babies under the age of 2
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) do not recommend face masks for children under the age of 2. The reason is that it puts them at risk of suffocation.
Babies’ airways and their lung capacities are smaller than grown ups’, and they may struggle to effectively breathe against a mask. They are also not able to remove the mask if they start feeling distressed. Another concern is that carbon dioxide can get trapped between the mask and baby’s face, and that this can actually suppress their breathing.
If your baby’s face is covered you are not able to see if your baby is busy regurgitating milk or is choking. This puts baby at a real risk.
So how can you protect baby?
All the same principles of protection that counts for grown-ups are also valid for babies.
- Do not take baby out unnecessarily and avoid crowded areas.
- Maintain social distances as far as possible when you are out and about; keep baby’s stroller in mind when you stand in a queue and position yourself so that there is 1-2 metres between you and the next person.
- In many ways it’s easier to keep other people further away from your baby by wearing your baby in a carrier rather than having him in a stroller.
- Cover baby’s stroller or car seat with a light blanket. You should be able to see your baby at all times though. If your baby is in a covered stroller in a crowded area it will be easy for someone to abduct a baby without you noticing it immediately.
- If baby is in a carrier, cover baby with a muslin blanket in a way where other people cannot easily cough or sneeze over baby, but where you can still see baby’s face.
- Wash or sanitise your hands every time before you touch baby.
- Although there is not yet sufficient evidence on this topic, it is believed that breastfeeding offers baby protection against COVID-19, so breastfeed baby as long as possible.
Protecting older toddlers and children
This is no small task, as obviously small children do not yet understand things like social distancing and the need to not touch your face. You need to find a balance between protecting them as well as possible, without causing anxiety and fear.
This is a challenging time for our children as well, as their lives are also completely disrupted. They may be unable to see family members they are used to seeing frequently, and may miss their school activities and their friends. They also sense the anxiety and stress of the grownups around them.
Furthermore, small children rely on the facial expressions and non-verbal queues of grown-ups to determine that all is well and that they are safe. Everyone wearing masks takes away that communication and it can lead to them feeling unsafe and insecure.
The following tips may help:
- Once again, avoid taking children out unnecessarily and avoid crowded areas.
- Use pictures and songs to explain the need for protection on a level that your child understands. Your child should know that there are germs that can sit on your hands and that you should keep these away from your face. Teach him to cough or sneeze into his elbow and not his hands, and to frequently wash or sanitise his hands.
- Let your child choose or decorate his own mask; make it a fun item.
- Elastic bands behind the ears are uncomfortable and children may not tolerate it for long. Loads of ideas are floating around on social media to help you deal with this creatively, from crocheted clips that connect the elastics at the back of the head, to caps with buttons onto which the elastics can hook.
- If you know that your toddler is only going to tolerate the mask for a short time, save it for the highest-risk part of your outing.
- If your child is still using a stroller, this can actually help to keep him contained, rather than running around in the store and touching possible contaminated items. Take along a favourite toy to keep him busy and occupied. Make sure that it is something that you can sanitise afterwards.
Because it is so difficult to protect small children, you should consider keeping them away from family members who fall in the high-risk group for developing complications of COVID-19. Remember that this too shall pass. One of these days we will again be able to move amongst each other without fear and distance, to hug loved ones and to enjoy the most beautiful parts of what life has given us – time spend with each other.
Christine Klynhans is a nursing sister and South African Certified Lactation Consultant (SACLC). She currently works at Parentwood Baby and Family Wellness Centre in Pretoria as a well-baby clinic sister and antenatal teacher. She also has a breastfeeding practice and a Breast Pump Demo Centre. She is passionate about supporting parents on the journey of pregnancy, breastfeeding and the early childhood years. Learn more about Christine Klynhans.