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Toddler washes his hands

Hand washing is one of the main ways we prevent the spread of germs, so it’s important children learn to do it properly from a young age.

Why should kids wash their hands?

  • The simple act of washing their hands is one of your child’s main barriers against the spread of bacteria and viruses that cause diarrhoea and other diseases. “Many of these diseases are transmitted when faeces from one person enters the mouth of another,” says Katie Greenland, Research Fellow in Hygiene Behaviour at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Little ones put their hands and fingers in their mouths more often than adults, making them more susceptible to faecally-orally transmitted infections.
  • Little ones are more likely to pick up germs due to their lack of immunity. “Young children are a lot more exposed when they start nursery or playgroup for the first time and come into contact with new things and other children,” adds Katie.
  • There’s also evidence that washing hands can prevent the spread of common colds and other diseases. So it’s a good idea to wash hands after sneezing, coughing and throwing away used tissues, especially if someone in the family is ill.
  • Globally, just 19% of the population wash their hands after going to the toilet. “If we want people to learn to wash hands at key times, we need to start these habits from a young age,” says Katie. “That way, children learn to do it automatically.”

What’s the ‘right’ way to wash hands?

Hands should be washed after going to the toilet and before eating food. There’s no trick or secret method to the perfect hand wash. “The key thing isn’t technique or amount of time,” explains Katie. “It’s about using soap and drying your hands afterwards. If you’ve got soap on your hands then the friction from rubbing, rinsing and drying them is the important part. You don’t want the message to get too complicated for children, for example by saying they have to sing Happy Birthday twice.”

6 ways to help your child keep the hand-washing habit

  1. Go back to basics. A simple, accessible routine helps habits form faster. Ensure your little one can reach the sink themselves ­– they might need their own step stool for this.
  1. Offer kid-friendly soap. “Young kids like to feel independent. So it’s nice for them to have their own soap, something colourful or with character branding to make it more fun,” suggests Katie.
  1. Track and reward. In schools – and for other routines like brushing teeth – a reward system is an effective way to monitor behaviour, so this could be useful to introduce at the start.
  1. Use visual reminders. “Making something very easy to do, repeating, and finally prompting it, all helps an action become automatic,” says Katie. For example, apply funny eye stickers to the soap or back of the bathroom door to help kids remember. Katie explains how research in an unrelated experiment with an honesty box showed stick-on eyes can make people more honest: “It’s the feeling of being watched. The eyes act as a reminder of social pressure, as well as being a physical cue that little ones will see and think about.”
  1. Set the scene. Even adults can find new settings difficult when trying to form habits, and for kids it’s even harder. At home, these new settings could just be different sinks around the house, so make sure all of the bathrooms and the kitchen are set up with step stools and soap for your little one’s hand washing routine.
  1. Keep it going. When children are little and being toilet trained, chances are you’ll be there each time to help them wash their hands. “Parents are busy, so the routine needs to be easy,” says Katie. “They need to lead by example and remember to do it every time, so the behaviour becomes automatic for the child when they go to the bathroom.” When kids get a bit older, parents can remind them when they come back from the bathroom, or sit down for dinner, to double check they’ve washed their hands.

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