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Teaching Kids to Wash Their Hands

It's hard enough to get grownups to wash up. Only two-thirds of adults wash their hands after they use the restroom, studies show.

How do we get our kids into the hand-washing habit, then? The obvious first step is to practice what you preach: Wash your hands before eating or cooking a meal, after using the bathroom, and after working or playing with your hands.

More than half of food-related illness outbreaks are caused by unwashed or poorly-washed hands, says the American Society for Microbiology. For example, outbreaks of hepatitis A in children in day-care centers have been directly connected to lack of hand-washing after changing diapers or using the bathroom.

Other illnesses

Other pathogens such as E. coli, Shigella, and Norwalk virus have also been spread by lack of hand washing. Spread of other conditions such as respiratory infections, impetigo, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye) also can be prevented by washing hands with soap and water.

Tell your children to wash their hands before a meal, after using the bathroom, after playing, and after touching or petting pets or other animals. Show them how to do it, over and over. Don't get frustrated: It takes a while for the habit to become second nature, says the Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC).

Children know when and why and how to wash their hands, but they forget to, the APIC says. They will wash their hands if the dirt is the obvious kind like mud or finger paints. Less obvious dirt and germs tend to be ignored.

Tips for washing

Try these techniques:

  • For visibly dirty hands, wash in warm or hot running water, which is more effective at dissolving oils.

  • Keep water running throughout the washing to ensure greatest removal of bacteria.

  • Wet your hands and then lather with soap.

  • Wash all hand surfaces: palms, back of hands, fingers, and fingernails.

  • Rub lathered hands together for at least 20 seconds, and up to 30 seconds (about as long as it takes you to recite the ABCs).

If a child is too small to reach the sink and can be safely cradled in one arm, hold the child to help him or her wash hands. A child who can stand should either use a child-sized sink or stand on a safety step at a height that allows the child's hands to reach the running water. An alternative method for a child who can't reach the running water and is too heavy to hold is to wipe the child's hands with a damp and soapy paper towel. Use another clean, wet paper towel to rinse soap off the hands. Dry the hands with a third clean paper towel. Wash your own hands after helping the child.