Children and Face Masks: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 26, 2022
5 min read

Face masks have become an essential tool to protect yourself and others from the COVID-19 infection and limit its spread. Under the CDC’s guidance, many communities have relaxed some of their recommendations regarding COVID-19 preventive measures like masking when there are low COVID-19 transmission rates, low hospital admission rates, and adequate hospital capacity in their area.

Now, there’s a COVID-19 vaccine available for everyone aged 6 months and above. But, for children who are too young to get the vaccine, and for ones with special health care needs, wearing a mask in certain settings can still help protect them or family members from COVID-19 infection.

However, some parents have raised concerns that face masks can affect their children’s ability to breathe properly or delay their speech and language skills or cause other long-term health risks. If you’re concerned about face masking in children, here’s a look at some of the most common questions and what science says.

Yes. According to experts, children and adolescents can spread SARS-CoV-2 virus to others, including parents, grandparents, and teachers, even if they don’t have symptoms or have a mild reaction. Wearing a well-fitting face mask that covers both your nose and mouth indoors can reduce coronavirus infection rate to less than 1% if everyone is wearing a mask.

For parents or adults who are caregivers to the elderly or immunocompromised, research shows that masking in children is the best and safest way to send your child to school and cut down the rate of infection among the children, the school staff, and the family members at home.

No. While some parents are concerned that wearing masks for long hours could cause low blood oxygen levels, there’s no need to worry. Masks are made from materials that are designed to allow a healthy flow of oxygen as your child breathes.

It doesn’t affect their ability to focus either. In fact, almost all children aged 2 and above, even those with certain medical conditions, can safely wear masks in school or day care for long periods of time.

No. Children can safely wear masks all day. There’s a myth that wearing masks for long hours could mean breathing in too much carbon dioxide (CO2), which could lead to hypercapnia -- CO2 poisoning. But that’s not true. Evidence shows that CO2 molecules are small enough to pass through the pores in your mask, so it’s not possible for children to get CO2 poisoning by wearing masks at school.

However, if your child is 2 years old or younger, experts note that it’s best for them not to wear masks as they can’t remove it if they need to or ask for help. Children with severe breathing issues or cognitive issues may find it hard to wear masks for long periods of time. They may need to take extra precautions to socially distance themselves in order to protect themselves from the virus.

No. Wearing a mask for long periods of time at school won’t affect your growing child’s lung development. In fact, the mask allows oxygen to properly flow in and around it while protecting your child from coming in contact with spit, coughs, sneezes, or other airborne particles that could carry the COVID-19 virus. Preventing or limiting the spread of COVID-19 with masks is one way to make sure your child’s lungs stay healthy.

Not at all. Wearing masks won’t compromise your child’s immunity or increase their risk of catching COVID-19 or other infections. In fact, because face masks cover your nose and mouth, they stop your child from constantly touching their face.

It cuts down on several infections, including COVID-19, that are spread through touch, droplets from bodily fluids, or through the air. Face masks protect your child’s overall health and immunity.

No. Since children learn to communicate by watching the faces, mouths, and expressions of the people closest to them, it’s understandable to wonder if face masks affect their motor skills. But there’s no evidence to show that face masks negatively impact speech and language learning skills in children.

In fact, when wearing masks, experts note that children learn to pay close attention to gestures, changes in tone of voice, emotions through eye movement, and words to develop the same speech and language skills.

It depends. According to the World Health Organization, if your child has developmental issues, cognitive impairments, severe breathing problems, certain disabilities, or medical conditions that make it hard for them to tolerate masks for long periods or breathe properly, wearing a mask for such children shouldn’t be mandatory.

Depending on your child’s specific health needs, the decision to wear a face mask should be something you as the parent or guardian should decide along with the professional advice from your child’s doctor.

No. According to experts, there’s no evidence that face masks have a negative impact on your child’s mental and psychological well-being. Moreover, no studies show that wearing face masks can lead to depression or anxiety among kids. For children who choose to continue to wear a mask in school, teachers and school leaders should be supportive of this decision and make certain that they don’t become the target of bullying

For kids, a mask that works well should:

  • Be well-fitting and cover your kid’s mouth and nose
  • Sit snugly under the chin with no gaps on the sides
  • Not block vision
  • Be comfortable

Respirators such as N95s and K95s have higher filtration standards. You can reuse them until they get dirty or don’t fit properly. While kid-size masks are available, they’re typically designed to be used by adults in the workplace. If it’s not comfortable, switch to a cloth or disposable mask.