Father holding toddler in kitchen

As the global pandemic continues to unfold, parents are focused keeping their kids safe from the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Yet, the things we know about the ways to protect from the virus are not always easy to implement with children.

The pediatric experts at University of Maryland Children's Hospital have a few tips and strategies to help parents keep kids safe.

Social Distancing for Kids

Kids are naturally social, so social distancing is no easy policy for a parent to enforce.

Right now, social distancing is expected for all children and families who live outside of your home family unit. This includes all playdates and visits with family that reside in other home settings, as each encounter increases the risk of spread.

Rebecca Carter, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Maryland School of Medicine and primary care pediatrician at UM Pediatrics at Midtown, explains, "Unfortunately we do not have a duration of this requirement, but we know that doing this aggressively right now is our best chance to slow the rate of spread and try to keep us all safe."

It is difficult to find a balance between emphasizing the need to practice social distancing and good hygiene, while not causing panic. Older elementary and teenage children can understand the basic concept of a virus and how it can be spread.

Review the CDC coronavirus information with your older child to reinforce that this is not just your rule, but a national recommendation.

In Public Places

Avoid any activities that bring you or your children in close contact with others, as well as any public settings.

If possible, leave your child at home for grocery trips or essential errands. If you cannot avoid bringing your children out, limit their access to touching objects in those settings, and keep 6 feet of distance between your child and others.

Outdoor walks are absolutely encouraged if you can keep a safe distance. Follow the stay-at-home order that closed public playground equipment and don't engage in play dates, even outdoors, with other families.

Inside the Home

If there are multiple kids in the household, how do you avoid them giving the virus to each other? It is extremely challenging to prevent spread with close contacts, which is why schools are closed and we are being asked for kids to keep their distance.

If someone in your home has coronavirus or symptoms of the virus, the infected individual could consider moving into an unused room, but we know this is not practical for most families.

Frequent hand-washing, avoiding sharing of food and kissing/hugging those who are ill are important first steps to avoid spread. We should also be teaching kids to sneeze and cough into a tissue or into their elbow and wash their hands right after to avoid spreading germs.

Explaining Germs to Kids

Children under age 3 will have a difficult time understanding germs and will require supervision to help limit their spread.

"Three-to five-year-old children tend to think very concretely. Things are 'good' or 'bad,' without much gray area," says Deborah Badawi, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Maryland School of Medicine and pediatric developmental and behavioral expert

"Simple, direct language is easiest for them to understand. It's important to let children know that even though germs make people sick, there are ways to protect themselves."

To explain germs, Badawi suggests:

  • Use simple statements like: "Germs are tiny things that you can't see with your eyes. Some germs can make us sick, but there are ways we can protect ourselves and stay healthy."
  • Relate the idea to an experience they've had, like an ear infection or a cold. "Remember when your ear hurt, and you took medicine? The medicine got rid of the germs that were making you sick and you got better" or "Remember when you had a cold? You stayed home and I took care of you and your body fought off the germs and got better."

How to Encourage Hand Washing

Children under age 5 are not able to pay attention to or understand long explanations, so it takes some strategy to teach them proper hand-washing.

Under Age 3

Children 2- to 3-years-old can follow routine cues to do things like washing their hands.

Try to come up with a fun verbal cue to wash their hands. Ask your child what word or phrase they like. It could be relevant, like "soap to the rescue!" or silly, like "peanut butter and jelly!"

Parents will need to initiate the cue, but if you get excited about it and run to the sink, chances are your child will get excited too!

Ages 3 to 5 Years

Children 3 to 5 years old like to have jobs and feel important.

Think of who your child admires — a superhero, a movie character, a relative or religious figure. Tell them how that person or character would fight germs by washing their hands. Remind them one of their big jobs right now is to keep their family safe by washing their hands.

No child is going to want to wash their hands all the time. Acknowledge their feelings, and gently but firmly insist they do it anyway. For example, "I know you're tired of washing your hands and you really don't want to do it. I'm sorry it's hard, but we still have to do it."

Remember to give specific praise after hand washing is over. "I'm so proud of you for washing your hands and helping to keep the germs away!"

Find questions and answers from University of Maryland Medical Center experts in our COVID-19 Q&A series.