The building blocks of teaching your toddler about hygiene

Baby is a toddler now, and toddlers are known for their sticky little fingers, but that just means it’s exactly the right time for her to get started learning about personal hygiene. She may not have the coordination to take on the task of keeping herself squeaky-clean yet, but she is definitely at the right age to start to learn about the importance of cleanliness as she grows.

Having the right vocabulary

While having good hygiene is definitely easier on Baby’s clothes, your home, your car, and the people around her, the real reason to make sure Baby scrubs up nicely is that it’ll help her stay strong and healthy. That’s also probably the best way to talk to her about hygiene, since being sick versus being healthy is a comparison toddlers tend to have a pretty good grasp on.

Before talking about hygiene with your little one, she needs to have the vocabulary to talk about her body. It’s no good telling Baby how important it is to keep her gums healthy if she has no idea what her gums are. The other thing you’ll need to decide is how you’re going to talk about bacteria, viruses, plaque, cavities, and the other reasons why good hygiene is so important. Just like when you’re talking to Baby about her body parts, it can be difficult to find the right balance between age-appropriate language, and words that are accurate.

Also like when talking about body parts, another thing that’s important is that Baby knows the words to use so that the non-you people in her life know what she’s talking about. This means that “germs” might be a good shorthand for bacteria and viruses, but taking it a step further and calling those germs “little tiny bugs” can lead to misunderstandings.

Hand washing

The first part of her personal hygiene routine that Baby will be able to take on for herself might be hand-washing. She may not be ready for potty training just yet, but it’s also important for her to wash her hands before meals, or any time they’re especially dirty, like after an art project, or after playing in the dirt. Having a hand-washing routine before she starts potty training also means that washing her hands won’t be another new skill she’ll have to learn at the time.

Now that Baby is standing on her own two feet, she might just need a stable, child-friendly step-stool to stand on to reach the sink. From there, you may start by washing her hands for her, but before too long, you can start delegating so she grabs the soap for herself, and does the scrubbing, too.

Hand washing should take about 20 to 30 seconds of solid, soapy scrubbing under warm, running water. Toddlers are slippery creatures who like to sneak away from the sink before they’ve spent their full 20 to 30 seconds getting clean, so making sure she washes her hands long enough to sing a 20 to 30-second song can help make sure they don’t cut too many corners. Hand washing songs can be anything that lasts long enough to make sure toddlers aren’t cutting any soap-and-water corners when washing those little fingers, but classic baby-and-toddler favorites like Happy Birthday and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star tend to fit pretty neatly, and Baby probably already knows the words.

Tooth brushing

You should probably still be the one who’s mainly in charge of tooth brushing, but Baby can try to do a little pre-brushing herself too. Like hand washing, tooth brushing can be more fun with a song (or a song and dance), as long as it’s just her hands dancing while her face stays still. Since Baby’s mouth is full when you’re brushing her teeth, she’s counting on you to do the singing for her. You’ll probably need a song that’s a little bit longer than “Happy Birthday” to get Baby through brushing her teeth, and since you’ll be singing it a lot, it might as well be something you like, so choose a favorite of yours. Just make sure it’s also something you won’t mind hearing Baby sing, either – you’re not the only one who’ll be hearing it a lot.

By the time Baby is around 6 or 7 years old, she will probably be about ready to take over tooth-brushing duty from you – though she may still need you there to sing the song for her.


You should still be closely supervising Baby in the bath, but you can start to ask her to try washing herself a little before you take over, or having her wash a doll while you’re giving her a good scrub-down. Getting her involved in the bathing process gets her engaged in what’s going on, and can help her build her motor skills along the way.

As much as she may actually have loved taking baths when she was younger, she may be reaching the point in her childhood where she starts to resist the bath. Just like with naptime, oftentimes this isn’t because she has a problem with bathing, and could just mean that she is having trouble with transitions. The problem isn’t the bath itself, but having to stop playing on dry land so she can get into the bath. This means that having a routine surrounding bathtime could become especially important.

General principles

  • Routine is important – the more automatic it feels for Baby to wash her hands before breakfast, the more likely she is to do it every time even once you’re no longer watching to make sure she scrubs thoroughly.
  • Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough sometimes gets framed as a politeness issue, but it’s more important as a concern about health, and fits in well to conversations about germs, especially when you’re already talking about hand washing.
  • The more Baby sees you doing the things you’re asking her to do, the more likely she may be to feel like it’s an expected part of her life as she grows. You may not have ever wanted an audience when you’re brushing your teeth or washing your face, but it’s for the sake of Baby’s education.

  • “Dental Hygiene: How to Care for Your Child’s Teeth.” American Academy of Family Physicians, June 2016. Web.
  • “Personal hygiene: Washing and drying.” Raising Children. Raising Children Network, October 26 2015. Web.

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