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Help Kids Start Healthy Hygiene Habits

child bruishing her teeth

If "Let me do it!" is at the top of your child's list of favorite phrases, you're in good company. Preschoolers often want to do everything themselves: turn on your computer, answer the phone, feed the dog, and pick out their outfits. But when it comes to personal hygiene, there are some skills that even the most I'll-do-it-myself kid could care less about. As a parent, you walk a fuzzy line; you want to encourage your child's budding independence by letting her take care of herself, but you still need to be heavily involved in her cleanliness to be sure that she gets the job done right.

Even though preschoolers want to be responsible for their own body, it's up to you to convince your kid how important good hygiene is. You might be surprised to find that the hardest part is letting him have the chance to practice so he can eventually do it on his own. "If he's going slowly or doing a sloppy job, you may want to jump in and just wash his hands for him, but resist the temptation. One of the biggest challenges for children who are learning these skills is a lack of opportunities for practice," says Christopher Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington. Take the time and have the patience to teach these healthy habits now, so by the time he's ready to tackle them solo, you can be confident that he'll do a first-rate job.

Healthy Habit: Toothbrushing

Set your child up for a lifetime of stellar dental health by making a thorough effort to polish those pearly whites.

Help it happen: While it's important to talk about how you need to clean the food off his teeth every morning and night so he won't get cavities, don't get too spooky about it or you'll freak him out. A simple "Let's brush off all the stickies!" is fine. Put a pea-size squirt of fluoride toothpaste on his toothbrush, set a timer for 30 seconds and let him have a turn at cleaning. "If your child totally resists brushing, try an electric toothbrush, which adds a fun factor," suggests Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York. After his turn, reset the timer for 90 seconds and brush over all of his teeth, making sure you get the back of his mouth, which is harder for him to reach. Then practice rinsing and spitting together -- and don't be surprised if this is your child's favorite part of the process; it's not very often that he gets the green light to spit!

This usually isn't an issue for boys because they've got short hair. But if you have a little girl with long or curly hair, you're probably familiar with the tangles and tears.

Help it happen: Getting your own hair up into a perfect ponytail can be a challenge some days, so it's unlikely that your preschooler will be able to do her 'do quite yet. But she can help with the prep work. "By age 4, her hands and arms are strong enough to tackle brushing her own hair," says Frances P. Walfish, Psy.D., a child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. Show her how to spritz on a detangler and help stop snarls by starting at the bottom of her hair and working up. She'll soon realize that well-brushed hair means fewer "owies." Once she's nixed the knots, you can assist with barrettes and trickier styles such as braids.

Healthy Habit: Hand Washing

Washing hands is a non-negotiable habit and kids need to learn to do it well, especially since school's back in session and bugs are being swapped like Silly Bandz.

Help it happen: Fortunately, sudsing up at the sink is an easy task for kids to master, but you do need to focus on two things at this age: length of time and use of soap. A quick swipe under the faucet isn't going to cut it. "Three- and 4-year-olds are old enough to talk to about germs," says Dr. Markham. "Explain the basics: how germs can make you sick even though you can't see them and scrubbing your hands gets rid of them." Also, kids are focused on rules at this age, and that's in your favor. Give your child steps to follow, and post an illustrated version of these wash rules by every sink in your home. You can say, "First step is water. Then get a squirt of soap. Now sing the alphabet song (so he scrubs long enough). Fourth step is rinsing away the soap, and finally, dry your hands. Done!" Until he's got the drill down, remind him that hand washing is a must after every bathroom visit, as well as before meals and after playing outside.

Like hand washing, wiping is one of those things you want to be sure is done right, but don't be surprised if it takes a little longer for your child to master.

Help it happen: Your daughter may have no problem taking a swipe with the TP after urinating, but at this age both boys and girls still need assistance after a bowel movement -- and that's okay. Teach your child to tear off an appropriate amount of paper and wipe from front to back, showing her how you repeat the process until the paper's clean. Flushable wipes may help her do a better job, since they're damp and softer. Take an additional swipe after she's finished to make sure she did a thorough job. You'll know you can step out of the picture when your follow-up is consistently unsoiled. And be sure to be matter-of-fact about the process. If you act grossed out when it's messy, she'll think wiping is a nasty job and be more inclined to skip it.

Healthy Habit: Taking Baths

While you shouldn't leave your child alone in the tub until he's about 7 years old, you can get him involved in the soapy steps.

Help it happen: Make bathtime fun by turning the rub-a-dub-dubbing into a "Simon says" game. Get a washcloth soapy and give him cues on what body part to scrub down. Not only will it be entertaining, but it will help cement the idea that he needs to wash from head to toe. Step in when it comes to rinsing to avoid suds from sliding into his eyes, but don't insist on a particular method, such as pouring water over his head. You'll just end up with a battle on your hands. Instead, lather up bubbles on his hair for him to play with. Then tell him you're going to make them disappear like magic, and find a way that works for both of you, whether it's putting a washcloth over his face as you pour, or letting him lean back for you to rinse out.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Parents magazine.