The Impact of Masks on Children–Should You Practice with a Stuffed Animal?

A stuffed animal for a child as young as one or two is often used as what is called a “transitional object” for his mother or other chief caretaker. That is, in the absence of the mother, the stuffed animal is an object whose smell, feel, and even expression give the child a sense of comfort for their own self soothing. This child is longing for something to bridge the absence or separation from the mother. While this absence is usually short-lived, the security stuffed animal is not. The child may proceed to carry it around, snuggle with it, and so proceed to always have this “not-me” object that represents security wherever he goes especially during normal stressful times such as learning things and people leave and go but come back.

It is normal and helpful for a child to learn how to soothe themselves with a stuffed animal, cuddle with it to put themselves back to sleep during the night should they awaken, and feel an imaginary but effective sense of security and love. Although this stuffed animal may be lost eventually or torn apart and may be no longer of use by grade school, it is not totally forgotten. In fact, if it’s still in one piece, sometimes teenage girls and boys more secretly continue to leave these objects on their beds to return to after a full day of activity.

But, what about uncertain times that are not normal such as the need to be quarantined during the Pandemic? What about a child who goes out hopefully briefly at a social distance from others with a hopefully healthy mother who sees people with masks? I am reminded of a 7 month old who recently went to a strange pediatrician to be tested for the virus that she had been exposed to. Seeing the doctor with a mask on frightened her. Here she was just learning about her parents’ facial expressions and coming to rely on them, imitate them, and feel secure in their midst when a face looked so unfamiliar and different. One could also suspect that the pediatrician as warm as she may be was busier than usual and wary herself of the virus being transmitted. So now we have a baby encountering a stranger who may seem anxious giving her a test she doesn’t understand and all of this with a mask on. Of course, her mother was with her the whole time, but she too donned a mask provided by the doctor, so she too looked different. The mother’s voice became very important to be reassuring this child she was still the same person. But babies don’t only listen, they visually watch mouths move. Now this was absent. Even at 7 months a child can begin to use a transitional object such as a stuffed animal or puppet with a familiar expression. Yet, this familiar soothing object could not be brought to the doctor’s because it would have to be sanitized. (Once back in the car, the mother should take off her mask and cuddle with her baby, even nurse her to let her feel their familiar bond before placing her in a car seat where she doesn’t see her mother’s face.)

What I am getting at with this brief story is the impact face masks have on very young children even under one year of age that though less stressful perhaps for a two or three year old is still going to create feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion. A parent can prepare a child and say simply there is a virus that can make us sick and we wear this mask so no one can sneeze or cough on us and make us ill. However, this explanation can only go so far because kids know about getting colds, the flu, strep throat and so on, but they’ve never had to wear a mask or see someone like a doctor or neighbor afraid of their temporary short-lived illness also wearing a mask.

So, the upshot of what I am saying is, if it is necessary to take your child on any excursion expect a mask will produce anxiety. After all, they are just learning about different facial expressions that relate people’s feelings and attitudes and now suddenly those cues disappear. Then, the only way to grasp another’s emotions is to see how their eyes appear, if their eyebrows are raised, and the general demeanor of their body language. For a young growing child who has been learning since infancy to imitate others’ faces, this can have a dramatic effect on their development.

In fact, think of the frequent game of peek-a-boo begun during the first year. Only by about 6-9 months does the baby understand that an object that is hidden is not gone but can reappear. However, it is only by about three years old that this understanding applies to people who appear and disappear. So, the mask disturbs this normal progression.

With this understanding of child development in mind I return to the question of a stuffed animal. Should a mask be put on and off a stuffed animal that has provided security to teach a child this security object is not going to vanish like the child fears their parent might when under a mask? This masking and unmasking disturb the security the object is intended for putting the child at emotional risk.

My recommendation then is to not mask and unmask this security stuffed animal but let there be at least this one object that doesn’t change and affords the child a feeling of safety and security. Separate this needed source of comfort from the faces of real people, especially the child’s parents who do not wear masks in the home. Make a clear distinction at this crucial and unusual time between inside the home and outside the home. Outside the home, the child can learn over time to adapt to seeing masks on people’s faces making them all strangers in effect increasing what is called “stranger anxiety.”  Without masks at all, nine-month-olds begin to feel this stranger anxiety which is normal, and they will progress beyond it. Add a mask and you are increasing that anxiety beyond what a normal child might usually be exposed to.

In conclusion, I would recommend:

  • keeping the stuffed animal as is without a mask
  • explaining very briefly that masks are worn outside the home not inside the home
  • explain that masks are for safety and are not scary
  • let the child touch and feel the mask and if old enough even hold it up to their own face and their mother’s so they experience the control of holding it up and taking it down at their discretion

Essentially, we do not want the mask itself to become a feared object like one feels with a phobia. Following the above guidelines should prevent this. But do not confuse the security object of a stuffed animal by playing a masking game with it. Then the child loses their one special, security object that remains the same which is indeed what provides its security for the growing child.