Pediatric HealthSource: Teaching Kids to Wash Their Hands

Showing children good hygiene habits helps to prevent the spread of germs and illness. Don't forget to make it fun for little ones.

Emily Decker, M.D.
Parents can model good hand-washing behavior for their children.

Q: Why is hand-washing so important, and how can I help my kids be better at it?

A: Hand-washing, while in the spotlight for the last couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has always been an important piece of good health and hygiene practices. Cleaning our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time helps to keep us safe from sickness and germs. Everything from the common cold to more serious infections (the flu, hepatitis A, COVID-19) and diarrhea spread less easily with regular handwashing.

Germs can spread in many ways, including touching contaminated surfaces, touching other people’s hands, changing diapers, coming into contact with bodily fluids of someone who is ill, being in close contact with someone who is coughing or sneezing, and consuming contaminated food and water. Once children (and adults, for that matter) come into contact with germs, all they need to do is touch their eyes, nose or mouth to become infected. Often, it’s not long before the whole family is sick.

Teach your child to wash their hands before eating, before and after food preparation, and after treating a cut and helping to care for someone who is sick. They should wash their hands after using the toilet, blowing their nose, coughing, sneezing, touching an animal or animal waste, touching garbage, or anytime hands appear dirty or greasy. Kids should also wash their hands after touching high-contact surfaces such as door handles, shopping carts and computers. Good habits start early: Children as young as 2 years old can be taught to wash their own hands.

Always consult your child’s pediatrician concerning your child’s health.

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Emily Decker, M.D., is a primary care physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Get Kids Engaged in Hand-Washing

Emily Decker, M.D., is a primary care physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Like anything else, making handwashing fun can help your child create a habit successfully.

  • Sing along: Experts recommend washing hands for 20 seconds. Help your child find a song they enjoy, and time it out appropriately so they can be their own judge of whether they washed long enough.
  • Get some tools: Using a chart to keep track of handwashing (with rewards at certain intervals) or purchasing colorful soap can keep kids coming back to the sink.
  • Be a role model: Wash your own hands often. You can’t expect your child to become a regular handwasher if they never see you do it!