Good personal hygiene habits go beyond smelling nice and looking clean; proper hygiene also prevents the spread of germs that lead to bacterial skin infections, respiratory ailments and common childhood viruses. Regular bathing promotes skin and hair health; infrequent bathers may also suffer the social stigma of being teased by their peers for being dirty. As with most behavioral traits in children, your own hygiene practices will have the most impact on their choices. Instill good habits about cleanliness, and take the opportunity to discuss the negative health consequences of sharing utensils and cups with friends.
The importance of handwashing cannot be downplayed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 9.1% of the world’s illnesses are directly related to improper handwashing. A 2006 study by the American Society of Microbiologists reported that only 97% of American females and 92% of their male counterparts regularly wash their hands. Surprisingly, many of these study participants confessed to skipping soap when they did wash their hands. As a family, some ways that you can encourage proper handwashing are:
- Provide fun soaps for your children that foam or smell good to encourage them
- Wash for a minimum of 30 seconds, or the length of time it takes to hum the “Happy Birthday” song
- Challenge siblings to a race to wash hands before meals
- Encourage children to cough or sneeze into the crook of an elbow instead of cupped hands
- Handwash after playing outside or with a group of friends
- Always follow play sessions with the family pet by handwashing
- Remind children that all of their hands must be clean, including the backs, between fingers and under nails
There is more to dental health than having a pretty smile – most people don’t realize that poor dental health can quickly lead to cardiovascular problems and astronomical medical bills. While dental insurance does exist, only 6 in 10 U.S. citizens have dental insurance. A typical dental insurance plan covers 2 exams and cleanings per year, and sometimes covers x-rays and fluoride treatments. Cavities, root canals, crowns and other treatments are usually not covered at 100%, and families must bear significant out-of-pocket costs if these are necessary.
A study of dental habits in 2009 reported that about half of Americans floss daily, and 10% never floss at all. Proper brushing and flossing techniques should be practiced by parents at least twice a day for optimum dental health. Carefully monitor your child’s dental habits until you feel he or she is mature enough to be trusted to do so correctly, brushing all tooth surfaces and flossing carefully between each tooth. Parents can introduce infants to the concept of dental care from the moment baby teeth appear.
For younger children, games can be a fun way to educate your child about personal hygiene.
- Hygiene charts are very useful for young children who need to be reminded of the steps to personal health. A task list might include pictures for non-readers or simple prompts for older children to wash hands and faces, brush teeth, bathe and brush hair. Some families employ a sticker reward system with these charts to encourage children to join in.
- Bath paints are ideal for keeping children in the bathtub longer, as children can draw and paint on surfaces that are easily rinsed clean after the bath. Bath toys for infants attach to the sides of a bathtub and provide distraction that may help you keep your baby in the bathtub longer.
- Use glitter to demonstrate how germs can be spread easily. Have several children apply lotion to their hands and then sprinkle a bit of different colors of glitter on each child’s hands. After the children shake hands or play, teach the children that the transferred glitter on all of their hands are like germs, clearly showing children how easily they spread and cause illness.
- A matching game can make it fun for children to learn about the tools they need to take care of their bodies. Make a set of index cards with drawings or clipped photos of body parts. Make another set of the tools necessary for good hygiene, such as nail clippers, a bath scrubby, a comb, dental floss and other items. Place one set of cards face-down and have children flip them and take turns matching the body part to its appropriate hygiene practice.
- Employ a magnifying glass or microscope to impart the idea that there are many things that are not visible to the naked eye, such as germs. If slides are available, have children observe the difference between clean hands and dirty hands. Using a magnifying glass, inspect doorknobs, light switches and other places in the home and point out the hidden dirt that accumulates on items that are frequently touched.