5 Healthy Hygiene Habits Your Child Needs to Learn
Even young kids can master these simple self-care practices — with a little help from Mom and Dad
Your 3-year-old can’t keep his fingers out of his nose. The dentist found not one, but two, cavities in your 6-year-old’s mouth. Ugh.
Kids aren’t born knowing how to take care of their bodies. They have to be taught good hygiene. But even preschoolers can learn some basic health habits, says Juanita Allen Kingsley, who conducts kids’ health courses for Century Health Systems in Boston.
Here are five important hygiene practices that all children should learn and tips for teaching them.
Proper handwashing. Scrubbing those chubby little hands is one of the most valuable health habits a kid can develop. Because of how easily germs are spread through touch, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says handwashing is like a “do-it-yourself vaccine” — one of the best ways to keep from getting sick and from spreading germs to other people.
To help your child learn to keep his hands clean, first make it easy and fun, advises Kingsley. Keep a sturdy step-stool in the bathroom so that he can reach the sink. Get a pump-action hand soap dispenser in the shape of an animal or favorite cartoon character to make sudsing up enticing.
Next make it safe: Mark the cold water handle with a sticker so your child won’t accidently turn on the hot and scald himself. His hands will get just as clean with cold water as long as he follows these five simple steps of proper handwashing from the CDC:
1. Get hands wet under running water, turn off the tap and put a few pumps of soap on hands.
2. Work up lots of suds by rubbing hands together. Be sure to lather up the backs of hands and between fingers.
3. Scrub for at least 20 seconds — the amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
4. Rinse hands under running water.
5. Use a clean towel to dry hands or let them air dry.
Make sure your child knows that he should wash his hands after using the bathroom, before and after he eats (including snacks) and any time his hands look dirty.
Coughing without spreading germs. This one can be a little confusing. Start by explaining that even though germs are too small to see, they spread through the air whenever someone coughs or sneezes without covering his or her mouth and nose, Kingsley recommends.
Here’s the tricky part: Your child’s instinct may be to use her hand to stop those germs from flying through the air, but that’s not a good idea. Tell your child that if she sneezes or coughs into her hand, the germs will get on her fingers and then everything she touches can be infected.
The safest way to sneeze or cough is to block the spray of germs with a tissue, so stash tissue boxes all over the house and even in the car. Stock your child’s backpack with travel packs of tissues. Remind her to throw or flush away the tissue and then wash her hands after using it.
Then teach her that when there’s no tissue handy, she should sneeze or cough into the inside of her elbow. Tell your child to pretend she’s Dracula and to lift her arm to her face when she coughs or sneezes, says Kingsley.
When a child who’s old enough to know better constantly has a finger in his nose, though, it’s called rhinotillexomania. It’s a behavior you want to nip in the bud. Nose picking is more than just a gross habit. It’s one more way a kid can get germs on his fingers that then wind up on something he touches.
To keep a kid from turning into a frequent nostril diver, get him to develop one simple habit, says Kingsley. “I teach kids to keep their hands below their shoulders,” she says. Obviously, if he’s dancing, climbing or reaching for something, that’s fine. But by making it a habit to keep hands down at all other times, a child is less likely to allow his fingers to stray to his face.
You may be able to enforce the hands-down habit by explaining to your child that the less he touches her face, the less likely he is to get a sick, since germs like to sneak in through body parts like the eyes and nose.
If that’s not enough prevent your child’s fingers from straying, gently take his hand away from his face. Eventually he’ll internalize the rule.
Brushing teeth. According to KidsHealth.org, most children don’t have the motor skills to thoroughly brush their own teeth until they’re 6 or 7 years old. You don’t have to wait until then to start showing your child the dental hygiene ropes, however. Start by having him watch you scrub your own pearly whites morning and night.
Explain how important brushing is. “Tell him it doesn’t just keep teeth looking nice, it keeps teeth and the entire body healthy,” says Kingsley.
Until your child can take over caring for his chompers himself, let him practice. Have him squeeze a pea-sized amount of toothpaste onto his toothbrush. Hold his hand to show him how to angle the brush against his gums and let him scrub away. Finish the job yourself, then have him spit and rinse.
Thorough post-potty wiping. When you first potty train your child, you’ll be doing the wiping, of course. But eventually your kid will need to clean her own nether regions after she uses the bathroom.
Girls should to wipe from front to back to reduce the risk of developing a urinary tract infection. “Teach boys and girls to wipe until the toilet paper comes out clean,” says Kingsley. Stay with your child for the first couple of weeks of attempted solo wipes. Give one last swipe yourself to make sure the job was done right. “And keep an eye on the laundry,” advises Kingsley. “If you see your child’s underwear isn’t clean, she may need a refresher.”
Finally, don’t rely on flushable wipes. They may make it easier at first, but they aren’t great for sewer systems.