While driving her 7-year-old daughter to school one morning, a mom in Oregon whom I know detected the faint odor of onions even though there wasn't any food in the car. A few weeks later, she noticed the stinky scent again as she was doing laundry. "I picked up one of my daughter's shirts and that was it -- underarm odor. I couldn't believe we were dealing with this already," she told me.
Second- and third-graders can get pimples, body odor, and other hygiene-related "yucks" you might not have been expecting yet because the average age of puberty has decreased by about six months to two years for boys and girls in the last couple of decades. While the first signs now typically start around age 9 or 10, 7- to 8-year-olds are on the early end of the range. "Even if your child isn't showing any hints of puberty yet, this is still the prime age to start transferring responsibility for body care over to her," says Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a Parents advisor and pediatrician with Seattle Children's Hospital. Learn how to make the switch go smoothly.
Deciding on Deodorant
If your child has started to sweat during gym class or when he's nervous, it's probably time to make deodorant part of his morning routine. "Ask him if he's noticed that he's sweating more," says Dr. Swanson. "Tell him that's normal as he gets older and that deodorant will help cover up the odor." She feels that typical deodorants are safe for children this age, but you can always choose one with natural ingredients, such as Tom's of Maine, if you prefer. And should you push for daily showers? Actually, Dr. Swanson says two or three times a week is still plenty for most second- to fourth-graders, depending on their activity level. If you want to go into a more in-depth explanation about puberty, consider buying your child The Boys Body Guide: A Health and Hygiene Book or The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls and reading the book together. Or let your child read it on his own and have a discussion afterwards.
Handling the First Pimples
Dermatologists are starting to see more 7- and 8-year-olds with mild acne, such as white- and blackheads on the forehead, nose, and chin. New treatment guidelines, supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, say you can often treat mild acne in children this age with an over-the-counter product that contains benzoyl peroxide. "So far, the research shows it's more effective than salicylic acid, another common ingredient in over-the-counter creams and pads," says Parents advisor Lawrence Eichenfield, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist at Rady Children's Hospital, in San Diego. Look at the ingredients list on over-the-counter products before making a decision. Although she may feel embarrassed about breakouts, reassure her that she didn't do anything wrong and that it's just part of growing up. You might even want to pull out one of your pimply teenage pictures. To help prevent future problems, suggest that she clean her face twice a day with face wash. She shouldn't scrub too hard -- just enough to loosen surface dirt and oil that cause pimples. If her skin starts to turn red, she needs to be more gentle. You can even do it for her a couple of times until she gets the hang of applying the right amount of pressure.
Keeping Teeth Healthy
Even with regular checkups, your child may still get cavities and bad breath if he's not careful about brushing and eats a lot of sugary treats. "Many parents let kids brush and floss on their own, without checking up to see whether they've done a good job," says Mary Hayes, D.D.S., a pediatric dentist in Chicago and spokesperson for the American Dental Association. The two most common brushing mistakes: skipping over the gum line where most plaque accumulates and not brushing the tongue, where the bacteria that cause bad breath thrive. Also help your child get in the habit of at least rinsing his mouth with water after having high-sugar foods, including healthy options like low-fat yogurt and 100 percent fruit juice.
Avoiding Greasy Hair
If your 7- or 8-year-old's hair is starting to look oily, puberty probably isn't to blame. Instead, it's likely residue from the shampoo and conditioner she's using, says Cozy Friedman, founder of Cozy's Cuts for Kids salons, in New York City. "Some moms with children this age still rinse out their child?s hair with a cup," says Friedman. "But as a kid's hair gets longer and thicker, it's best to transition to letting her wash her own hair in the shower." Stay in the bathroom with her until you're confident that she can do it on her own. Give her a washcloth to cover her face if she's worried about getting water in her eyes, and consider buying a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner because it's usually easier to rinse out. Says Friedman: "Tell her that she only needs to use a nickel-size amount -- many kids go overboard and have trouble rinsing it all out."
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.