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Getting toddlers into the washing habit

Babies and young toddlers get their cleaning done for them, so how do you get small children into the habit of washing their hands and keeping clean?

Posted: 6 February 2007
by Laura Lee Davies

In the first few months of life, a baby's hands don't get very dirty. Certainly a baby will get sick or fluff on them, but nothing so horrendous that requires much more than a clean with a baby wipe or a dip in their warm water bath. However, as feeding becomes a self-help adventure for many of them, and sitting, crawling and walking puts them in touch with all manner of grubby things in the home and garden, it is important that you become aware of hygiene and what kinds of messages you are sending your child.

Getting into the habit
Your child will still need you to do his cleaning for a while yet, but by about 18-24 months, you might find your toddler is ready to try mimicking this adult activity.
Just as nappy changing times might have been associated with mummy's reassuring nursery rhymes, or food time might have been accompanied by a narrative of the spoon 'flying like a plane' into baby's mouth, hand washing and teeth cleaning can be associated with a rhyme, a made-up song or a game you have created to make this more fun. Importantly, smalll children understand rituals and if it's a fun one, it will become a pleasure not a chore for them.
Think about when you wash your child's hands. There is no need to become obsessive about cleaning all the time, but explain to your child when it's right to clean hands: after a nappy change (for you and possibly him), after a visit to the loo (once potty training), when he's been playing in the garden, when he's touched animals at home or at a farm, etc. Underline the importance without turning it into a threat. (Something like, 'We wash our hands when they are dirty so we make don't our food yucky and we don't get an upset tummy,' might be enough for now.)

Make it an independent exercise
The height of sinks, the possible exposure to hot water, fear of a child flooding the bathroom with too much water – all of these things tend to mean that we take hand-washing out of the control of our child.
All of these are reasonable concerns, but can be overcome with a small bowl of warm water placed somewhere within reach of your child, preferably somewhere that can withstand some splashing (kitchen, bathroom, garden patio, another room with a towel on the floor), and with a bowl which doesn't easily fall over. You want your child to enjoy the success of washing rather than associating it with chaos and mess of upturned bowls every time.
Be clear that your child is not at fault if things get a little splashy, but also try not to make a really messy experience seem fun as this will become the norm!
If you are using soaps, try to use small soaps that are manageable for your child (possibly little animal-shaped glycerine ones for kids), and try to use simple soaps that are not too full of chemicals.
You may already have a bath towel especially for your child. If they have a special flannel or a small towel, you can keep this by the sink or in the kitchen, to remind him that his own rituals are his domain.

"Do as I do"
If you want your child to wash his hands when he's made a mess or gone to the loo etc, you must always do the same!
When you are cooking and your child is in the kitchen, you can make reference to the fact that you are washing your hands before starting to prepare food, to underline how and when we do simple acts like this.

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