Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Children's personal hygiene needs change dramatically during this early childhood stage, from something caregivers do for their children to something children learn to do for themselves.
One of the most important self-hygiene tasks that preschool-aged children need to master is hand washing. Young children who are beginning to care for their own toilet needs and who spend time with other young children in a school or daycare setting can easily spread all sorts of germs. Caregivers should teach little ones in a very concrete and understandable way how germs are spread, and how hand washing kills germs. Caregivers also need to teach children how and when to wash their hands, and to encourage them to practice this skill often.
Frequently, little ones are impatient and barely get their hands wet. Caregivers can make hand washing more fun (and last longer) by teaching children a song to sing while they wash their hands. A 15-second song, like a verse of "Happy Birthday," is an optimal length of time for children to spend washing hands. Hand washing should be mandatory after using the bathroom, before eating, after playing outside, after sneezing, or after petting the dog.
In addition to frequent hand washing, small children need to learn other ways to prevent the spread of germs. Children should be taught to cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze, and to use a tissue (rather than their shirt sleeve) when they need to wipe their nose or mouth. Children should also be taught that sharing cups and eating utensils, particularly at school, is an easy way to spread germs and become sick, and should therefore be avoided.
Promoting good personal hygiene habits does more than protect children from the threat of germs and disease. It also helps keep them looking and smelling clean and fresh, and promotes their general health.
In this vein, dental hygiene is an important part of personal hygiene. Caregivers need to teach young children the importance of brushing their teeth at least twice a day, and flossing their teeth once a day. Adult modeling of brushing and flossing is one of the better ways for caregivers to teach children appropriate dental self-care behavior. Kids are much more likely to regularly brush and floss their teeth if they see Mom and Dad doing these things as well.
Toothbrushing should be integrated into both the morning and bedtime routines. To make disinterested brushers more excited about brushing, caregivers can buy child-friendly toothbrushes that have cartoon characters on the handle, or that spin and/or play music. More expensive technology is not mandatory, but for some children who refuse to pick up a toothbrush, these gadgets can work an amazing trick.
Flossing can occur in the evening (or at another point in the day). Skillful flossing requires highly developed fine motor control and it can be exceptionally difficult for young children's little fingers to master appropriate flossing technique. For this reason, flossing will likely remain something that adults need to help children with for some time. To make the task of flossing easier, caregivers can have children floss with pre-flossed holders, which are easier to manage than long pieces of traditional string dental floss.
Young children also need to bathe regularly. How regularly they need to bathe depends on each child's individual needs. Bathing every day may be appropriate for kids that are highly active. However, daily bathing may deplete some children's skin of natural oils faster than they can be replenished, leaving them with dry and itchy, uncomfortable skin. In such cases, bathing every other day may be more optimal, or a gentle after-bath lotion may be useful.
No matter how skilled young children are at bathing themselves, it's mandatory for an adult to supervise all bath times. Young children can drown quickly in even a small amount of bath water. As a result, caregivers should always be watching children while they bathe.
Children should not be allowed to adjust the bath water temperature when unsupervised, as they may turn the heat up too high and scald themselves. Scalding risk can be prevented by turning down your water heater's temperature adjustment to a lower setting. Parents should also personally adjust the bath water temperature at the bath faucet so as to ensure that their child will not be burned or chilled by temperature extremes. A good trick caregivers can use to determine how warm to make the bath water is to test the water stream against the skin on the inside of their arms (which tends to be more sensitive than other parts of the body). To prevent irritation of children's eyes and skin, caregivers should pick out gentle soaps, shampoos and body washes for children to use and put adult bathing products out of sight so as to make them less tempting. Caregivers who are concerned about any skin irritations or their children's bathing needs should consult their pediatrician or family doctor.