Even as adults, maintaining model hygiene can be a struggle (seriously, we are really making use of our own dry shampoo lately). So while we’re working on keeping our own selves fresh and clean (sometimes), how do we help our kids build healthy habits that stick—and ditch not-so-healthy ones? We brought these and all our germ concerns to pediatrician Dr. Sarah Greene for her expert advice on toddlers to teens—here’s what she had to say.
“How can I help my toddler or preschooler start building good hygiene habits now?”
Set an example. “With toddlers especially, building habits is all about modeling the behaviors you want them to pick up,” Dr. Greene says. “Let them come in the bathroom while you’re brushing your teeth in the morning, or better yet, let them help you.” While they may not fully understand the reasoning and logic behind every task just yet, they are at the age when they’re most inclined to imitate behaviors, so if they see you (or big bro or sis) doing something, they’re more likely to do it, too.
Let them do it themselves. “By preschool age, kids like to feel like they are in charge,” Dr. Greene explains. “Give them the independence they crave by letting them attempt tasks like wiping or brushing on their own before swooping in to finish up yourself.” Encouraging them to participate in their personal care (even if they can’t quite reach those back teeth!) is good practice—and will empower them to start taking ownership of their health and hygiene early on.
Establish clear rules and routines for the important things. Kids learn best with routine and structure. “Instead of asking them, ‘Do you want to go take a bath?’, tell them, ‘It’s bath time!’ Make those habits part of a set routine—no questions asked,” Dr. Greene recommends. You could even establish routines for the whole family—maybe everyone takes turns washing their hands before they sit down to eat, or brushes teeth together before bed. (While you’re at it, might as well coordinate the whole family’s hair care routine, too—we can help with that.)
Make it fun! If your four-year-old can’t get enough of “Old Town Road” (or whatever the kids are into these days), jazz up toothbrushing time by playing the song as a timer—or pick whatever tunes they love enough to stay engaged for a full two minutes. Give them the creative control of choosing their own toothpaste flavor, bath toys, hair brush, etc. Dr. Greene suggests using sticker charts as a motivational tool for tedious tasks—more on that below.
Don’t rely on rewards (at least not forever). “We want kids to be intrinsically motivated when it comes to their personal hygiene, so we don’t want to reward them for every little thing. But for some things that aren’t fun but are still really important, sticker charts and other reward systems can be a great tool for establishing a habit. I recommend choosing a reward that’s related to the habit you’re working on, like a new toothbrush or a new bath toy. Once the habit is established, you can take the reward system away.”
“What are your tips for breaking unhygienic habits (nail-biting, thumb-sucking, nose-picking)?”
Pay attention to triggers. Triggers are often physical (something in their nose makes them want to pick it, a hangnail makes them want to bite it), but are sometimes related to emotions like anxiety, stress or boredom. By figuring out what’s triggering the habit, you can come up with a plan to break it, instead of just telling them to stop. “It could be as simple as keeping their nails filed short, or giving them tissues to keep on hand,” says Dr. Greene.
Constantly scolding will backfire. “What doesn’t work is constantly telling them to stop what they’re doing. In fact, the more you talk about the habit, the more they will have the urge to do it!” Dr. Greene explains. What’s more, scolding them can actually increase stress, which could make the habit worse. When you notice the behavior, offer a replacement activity like a fidget spinner or coloring book. Or bring up the habit when they’re not doing it. “For example, you could say ‘Hey, your nails look short. Have you noticed that you’ve been biting them?’ Oftentimes, they don’t even realize they’re doing it,” notes Dr. Greene.
“One word: PUBERTY. What can I do to help my kid adjust to all the new body stuff that comes with it?”
Accept that it’s going to be awkward. Puberty is just an awkward time, so there’s never going to be a perfect moment or method for approaching the subject. Still, it’s important not to avoid the elephant (or smell!) in the room. Point out what you notice, but try to do so in a private space and steer clear of shame and judgement. (In other words, “you stink” probably isn’t the most effective way to start a chat about using deodorant… even if they are 100% stanky.)
Find out if they want help. Ask if they’ve noticed any changes to their body odor or if they’d be interested in trying a new skincare routine. Dr. Greene explains, “If you notice your child is starting to develop acne, you can ask, ‘Is your skin bothering you at all?’ Or say something like, ‘With kids your age, the oil in the skin starts to change and you need to wash your face every night. Is that something you’d be interested in?’ They may say no in the moment, but might circle back later and want help.”
Give them their own resources. Make sure they have a reliable resource they can turn to for the questions they find too cringey to ask. “I make sure all my teens have the names of books they can order and approved websites that are sources of helpful, accurate information,” Dr. Greene says. “They’re usually embarrassed and don’t want to talk, but they do still want the information, and will be much more comfortable reading about it themselves. A few of my favorites books for young teens are Celebrate Your Body (and Its Changes, Too!) and Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys. For older teens, youngwomenshealth.org and youngmenshealthsite.org, both run by the Boston’s Children Hospital, are excellent resources.”
“We just experienced a global pandemic. How can we stay cautious about cleanliness without anxiety spirals?”
Don’t go overboard with sterilization. “I always tell my families, you don’t need to use hand sanitizer or antibacterial soaps in your house. Washing with regular soap and water is enough. Children need to be exposed to both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria while their immune system is developing. Antibacterials kill all bacteria, and that could mess with that natural process.” Besides, there’s no scientific evidence that these protect us more than good ol’ soap and water.
Let kids get dirty! A little dirt doesn’t hurt—it’s actually healthy. “I really encourage parents to get kids out in the world!” Dr. Greene says. “Things like having a garden, spending time on a farm or playing with pets can help develop a healthy microbiome in those early years.” In fact, research shows that kids who grow up with cats and dogs are less likely to develop allergies and asthma later on.
Avoid scare tactics. “When you’re correcting behavior, keep shame and fear out of it,” advises Dr. Greene. “The natural reaction, especially during the era of COVID, may be to freak out and say, ‘Oh my god, did you just put your mouth on that? Do you want to get sick?!’, but we don’t want to scare them or make them anxious. It’s much better to be clear without shame or fear: ‘That railing is for hands, not mouths. If you can’t keep your mouth off it, you can come sit by me until you’re ready to use the equipment safely.’”
Prep with walkthroughs + roleplay. Establishing boundaries for more germ-y areas can be helpful (at the park, pool, public areas, school, etc.). Before leaving the house, prepare them by walking through different scenarios where they may need to social distance, wear a mask or be extra-careful about cleanliness so they know what to expect.
“In what areas can parents relax? Are there any things that aren’t as unhygienic as we might assume?”
Daily bathing and hair washing isn’t necessary for most kids. “As a general rule, if they’re not dirty, don’t bathe them,” Dr. Greene says. “You have to know your kids and what works best for them. For some kids, overwashing can dry out their scalp and skin. For other kids, particularly those with eczema, daily baths (done correctly with soaps free of dye/artificial scents and strict post-bath moisturizing routine) are beneficial. Keep in mind that what works when they're younger may not work as they get older. Some teens with more oily skin and body odor do need to bathe (or wash their face) more frequently and use body wash/cleansers routinely.”
Products marketed to kids aren’t always the best or safest choice. “Be wary of things labeled 'baby' or marketed to kids—often they are scented with irritating chemicals to smell nice, or they charge more for a product that isn't actually safer. I say to look for the National Eczema Association seal, dye-free and/or scent-free for real sensitive kiddos.” (☝ This is one of the reasons why we developed Odele products with the whole family in mind, so you can share your shampoo with your little ones, too. Our new Ultra Sensitive line is fragrance-free, safe for sensitive skin types and approved by the National Eczema Association—check it out here!)
When it comes to kids and hygiene, we’re all doing our best. Setting realistic rules and routines can go a long way toward building long-term healthy habits, but be sure to give them control in the process, too. Keep stress, shame and scare tactics out of conversations about cleanliness; instead, help kids build confidence by establishing boundaries and empowering them to take ownership of their bodies. And stick to safe products—ingredients matter!