This is Part 23 in a multi-week series of blogs focused on the ABC’s for Healthy Kids. Learn more at www.snohd.org/healthykids.
Top Three Take-Aways:
- It takes time and practice for children to learn to wash hands well.
- Hands are an ideal place for germs to hitch a ride and washing them is one of the best ways to prevent diseases from those germs.
- There are a lot of great ways to teach kids about handwashing. Find what works for you and your kids, and stick with it.
Why you need to wash well
Washing your hands might seem like a simple thing. Soap, water, scrub, ta-da!
But remember that handwashing is a skill, and it has to be learned. In fact, it is one of the most important health skills adults can teach children.
Unfortunately, hands are an ideal place for germs to hitch a ride. People of all ages touch their face without even realizing it, bringing the germs on their hands up to their eyes, nose, or mouth. People also handle food and drink, which can get contaminated by whatever is on their hands.
Teaching children to wash well requires practice and reinforcement. You may find yourself asking: “Did you use soap?” or “I didn’t hear the sink…are you sure you washed?” or “Did you get between your fingers?”
Be patient and stick with it to make sure they wash regularly and thoroughly. It will pay off in keeping them healthy.
It’s common for parents or caregivers to start emphasizing handwashing around the same time young children are learning to use the toilet. That makes a lot of sense – the thought of someone not washing well after using the toilet is gross. And it’s gross for a reason.
Poop is one of the top sources of disease-causing germs, many of which can cause serious illness and severe diarrhea.
Handwashing is not just an after-the-potty thing, though. It should be done frequently throughout the day. Teach kids to wash hands before they eat. Help them wash after they play outside or go to the store, or when they get back from school or daycare. Always wash well after touching animals.
Remind kids to scrub their hands after they blow their nose or cover a cough or sneeze, even if they aimed the sneeze for the elbow instead of the hand. The germs from boogers, snot, or smaller respiratory droplets can get on hands and spread to the places and people you touch.
Globally, diarrheal diseases and pneumonia are leading causes of death among young children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC notes that handwashing with soap could protect about a third of young children who get sick with diarrhea and one-fifth of those who get sick with respiratory infections like pneumonia.
So yes, handwashing may seem like a simple thing, and something we often take for granted. But it makes a tremendous difference.
Handwashing vs. sanitizer or wipes
Keeping up with kids is busy work, and hand sanitizer or wipes can be a major time saver when you are on-to-go. Whenever soap and water is available, though, you and your kids should take the time to wash your hands rather than rely on sanitizer.
To wash hands well, focus on the following:
- Get hands wet with clean, running water
- Lather with soap all over the hands, including fronts, backs, and between the fingers. Get everything from fingertips to wrists.
- Keep scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. That’s about the amount of time it takes to hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
- Rinse hands with clean, running water
- Dry off your hands. A clean cloth or air dryer works for this.
Handwashing with soap and water is more effective than simply using hand sanitizer. That said, hand sanitizer is a great option when you can’t wash your hands. For example, if you are going on an outdoor adventure with kids, there may or may not be a sink and soap available. It’s a good idea to have hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol content) available for occasions when there is no handwashing station nearby.
Store hand sanitizer out of the reach of children and remind them never to drink it. Young children should only use it while supervised.
Then there are the times when all you have are some wet wipes. These can be good to clean heavy stuff off kids’ hands, like dirt, sand, kids paint, or sticky food. But remember, just because you’ve wiped off what you can see doesn’t mean you’ve cleaned away the germs. Germs are more like glitter than paint – you know, no matter how many times you wipe those little hands, it won’t all go away.
If you do only have wet wipes available to clean your child’s hands, try to find some hand sanitizer or, better yet, a sink for a real scrub when you are able to.
Tips for helping kids wash their hands
- Lead by example. Kids are watching you. Take the time to wash your hands well so that it seems like the norm for your kids, not something they have to work at.
- Check in with them. Even if they get frustrated or roll their eyes at you, take the time to check with them. When they come out of the bathroom, before you all sit down to dinner, or after they’ve been playing outside – ask if they remembered to wash their hands.
- Come up with the right song. Maybe twice through “Happy Birthday” isn’t the tune your kid wants to rely on. Time a 20-second tune they do like to use for their scrub-timer. For fun, you can all pick a tune in your household. Don’t be afraid to hum yours loudly as a reminder that you, too, are washing your hands for a full 20 seconds.
- Make sure they have what they need. Do you have soap near your sinks? Can your kids reach the water handles, soap, and towels? Do you need a stepping stool or something else to help make handwashing easy for them? If kids can’t easily wash their hands, they are much less likely to do it every time.
- Pick a fun soap. Let your kids pick out a soap they like – scented, extra bubbly, a bright colored bottle or bar. Whatever will motivate them to really scrub. Just be prepared for them to use up the soap fast!
- Help them visualize the germs. Put Vaseline or cooking oil on their hands, then sprinkle a bit of glitter or fine spice. Have them wash until they can’t see the glitter or spice anymore to teach them what it takes to get the "germs" off – soap, running water, and lots of scrubbing.
More handwashing resources
Take some time now to check off the “W” in the ABC’s for healthy kids. Do your kids know how to wash their hands, and why it’s important?
It may seem like a simple thing, but washing your hands often and washing them well is a great way to help protect your health.