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 the E. coli bacteria in children in day-care centers have been directly connected to lack of hand-washing after changing diapers or using the bathroom. Washing with soap and water reduces such occurrences.

Telling your children to wash their hands before a meal, after using the bathroom and after playing, and showing them how you do it, over and over, may be the only way to teach them the practice. 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.

Try these techniques:

  • Wash in warm or hot running water, which is more effective at dissolving oils.
  • Keep water running throughout the washing to ensure maximum removal of bacteria.
  • Use soap.
  • Wash all hand surfaces: palms, back of hands, fingers and fingernails.
  • Rub lathered hands together for at least 15 and up to 30 seconds (about as long as it takes you to recite the ABCs).

09-01-06 Montreal Children's Hospital - SW