Parents have been asking me what I could recommend to keep their children healthy. Believe it or not, I always answer hand washing. That’s right: hand washing. In fact, let me give everyone a hand in understanding why this is such an important thing to do.

Your child is exposed to all kinds of germs all day, every day. An infection can last for days after they touch a playmate, share toys, or pet their dog or cat. If their hands then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth, an infection can result. And it can last for days, weeks, or even longer. But with handwashing, the spread of these germs can stop and your child can remain healthy.  

How often should a child wash his or her hands? Here are my recommendations:

  • Before meals
  • After using the bathroom
  • When coming in from outdoors
  • After playing with the family pet
  • After sneezing, coughing, or being with someone else who is doing the same thing

What is the proper way to wash hands? When using soap and water, you need to wash or lather up the hands for at least 10-15 seconds. That’s how long it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song nice and slow. Make sure to rub and scrub between the fingers, under fingernails and on both sides of the hands and wrists.

Dry the hands with a clean towel, ideally a disposable one. If possible use a paper towel to turn off the faucet. Don’t use the same damp cloth or hand towel to wash or dry everyone’s hands. If you do, germs will spread from one child to another. 

If lots of children need their hands washed, consider supervised use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead. Supervision is a good idea so children don’t lick or drink the potentially dangerous chemicals in the sanitizer.

When your child has a cold, remind them to cough or sneeze into their sleeve. If they use any tissues, they should throw them away after using them. 

Hopefully tips like this will wash away any doubt you may have about the importance of good handwashing for your entire family. 

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and MyNBC 5, or visit the “First with Kids” video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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