The All-Time Grossest Kids' Habits Explained

Does your child pick his nose? Eat food off the floor? Forget to wipe his butt? We know -- ew! -- but preschoolers are prone to icky behavior. Here are eight common bad habits -- and how to nip them in the bud.

Nose-Picking

What's the worst thing that can happen: Although it's disgusting to watch your child's finger go from nose to mouth, eating boogers won't make him sick. But picking his nose might: The mucous membranes lining your child's nostrils are a prime entry point for infections.

How to make it stop: Redirection is usually effective. "Give him a toy or a book -- anything to occupy his hands," says Michal Nissenbaum, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Developmental Disabilities Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center, in Kansas City. Explain to a preschooler that nose-picking spreads germs. Also carry tissues, and hand him one the instant he reaches for his nose.

Bonus tip: Reduce itching by keeping his nostrils moist. Dab them with petroleum jelly, or use saline drops several times a day. During the winter (or if you live in a dry climate), a cool-mist humidifier in his bedroom will prevent mucous membranes from drying out overnight.

Next: Sloppy Wiping

Sloppy Wiping

What's the worst thing that can happen: Once a preschooler can use the potty, you may be tempted to let her take care of business. But if she isn't wiping well, she may emerge with an awful mess on her hands. For girls, incomplete wiping can also cause bladder infections.

How to make it stop: A child under 4 may lack the motor skills to wipe properly, so double-check her work. Even at age 5 or 6, your child may need periodic wiping demonstrations (you'll know by seeing her underwear).

Bonus tip: Some children find flushable wet wipes easier to use than toilet paper.

Drinking Bathwater

What's the worst thing that can happen: Soapy water is a bigger concern than tub grime. If he guzzles down enough bubbles, he can get diarrhea.

How to make it stop: If he's sipping suds because he's bored, divert him with bath toys, crayons, or paints. And if he's 3 or older, point out the ring of gunk in the tub when he's done bathing. "That will dissuade most kids," says Kerry English, M.D., director of child development at UCLA's King/Drew Medical Center, in Los Angeles.

Bonus tip: Is your child drinking because he's thirsty? Offer him a sip of (clean) water.

Coughing and Sneezing Without Covering

What's the worst thing that can happen: "Cold viruses and more serious illnesses, including pneumonia and meningitis, are spread by the organisms traveling in those little droplets," says Robert S. Baltimore, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine.

How to make it stop: Be a good role model. If you cover your own nose and mouth, your children are more likely to do the same. And don't be afraid to nag -- kids need constant reminders to cover when they cough or sneeze (and to wash their hands afterward).

Bonus tip: To prevent the spread of germs, teach your child to sneeze into the crook of her elbow, not her hands.

Next: Scab-Picking

Scab-Picking

What's the worst thing that can happen: Dirty fingers can introduce infection-causing bacteria to a wound. Scabs that are picked repeatedly can also scar.

How to make it stop: Treat cuts and scrapes with antibiotic ointment, and cover them with a bandage to keep little hands away. Let him choose one with his favorite character on it; he'll be less likely to remove it.

Bonus tip: When you see your child picking at exposed skin, distract him with a finger-play song, such as "The Eensy-Weensy Spider."

Forgetting to Wash Hands

What's the worst thing that can happen: A child who doesn't clean her hands regularly can contract a scary number of diseases, including pinworms, fecal bacteria, and the virus that causes hepatitis A.

How to make it stop: Offer frequent, gentle prompts. Remind her to wash up before meals, after playing outside, and -- the big one -- whenever she uses the toilet. Also, use visual cues to make hand-washing part of her bathroom routine. Trace your child's hands on paper, draw on soapy-looking bubbles, and tape it to the bathroom door.

Bonus tip: For cleaner hands on the go, keep anti-bacterial wet wipes in your glove compartment or purse.

Nail-Biting and Finger-Picking

What's the worst thing that can happen: Your child's fingertips or cuticles can bleed and become infected. Biting dirty fingernails can also transmit germs.

How to make it stop: Most young children nail-bite when they're bored, such as during long car rides. For these occasions, distract him with music, a book, or some crayons and paper.

Bonus tip: If your nail-biter is a girl (and you aren't opposed to the idea of using polish on your child), give her a manicure. When you catch her nibbling, remind her how much nicer her nails look when she leaves them alone.

Eating Food off the Floor

What's the worst thing that can happen: If you accidentally step in animal poop, you can track parasites, salmonella, or other harmful organisms onto that floor, according to Philip Tierno Jr., Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center, in Manhattan, and author of The Secret Life of Germs. Fortunately, the chances of your child's contracting a serious illness this way are (pun intended) microscopic.

How to make it stop: Just say no every time your child does it. Even a toddler can be trained not to put fallen food into his mouth. Also, clean floors frequently and keep them dry, because germs thrive in damp environments.

Bonus tip: Think food is safe to eat as long as you retrieve it within five seconds? Then swallow this: A recent study showed that food dropped on infected flooring is contaminated as soon as it hits the ground.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the March 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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