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 them to get started learning about personal hygiene. They may not have the coordination to take on the task of keeping themself squeaky-clean yet, but they are definitely at the right age to start to learn about the importance of cleanliness as they grow.

Having the right vocabulary

While having good hygiene is definitely easier on Baby’s clothes, your home, your car, and the people around them, the real reason to make sure Baby scrubs up nicely is that it’ll help them stay strong and healthy. That’s also probably the best way to talk to them 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, they need to have the vocabulary to talk about their body. It’s no good telling Baby how important it is to keep their gums healthy if they have no idea what their 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 their 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 their life know what they're 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 their personal hygiene routine that Baby will be able to take on for themself might be hand-washing. They may not be ready for potty training just yet, but it’s also important for them to wash their 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 they start potty training also means that washing their hands won’t be another new skill they'll have to learn at the time.

Now that Baby is standing on their own two feet, they might just need a stable, child-friendly step-stool to stand on to reach the sink. From there, you may start by washing their hands for them, but before too long, you can start delegating so they grab the soap for themself, 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 they wash their 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 themself too. Like hand washing, tooth brushing can be more fun with a song (or a song and dance), as long as it’s just their hands dancing while their face stays still. Since Baby’s mouth is full when you’re brushing their teeth, they're counting on you to do the singing for them. You’ll probably need a song that’s a little bit longer than “Happy Birthday” to get Baby through brushing their 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, they will probably be about ready to take over tooth-brushing duty from you – though they may still need you there to sing the song for them.


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

As much as they may actually have loved taking baths when they were younger, they may be reaching the point in their childhood where they start to resist the bath. Just like with naptime, oftentimes this isn’t because they have a problem with bathing, and could just mean that they are having trouble with transitions. The problem isn’t the bath itself, but having to stop playing on dry land so they 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 their hands before breakfast, the more likely they are to do it every time even once you’re no longer watching to make sure they 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 them to do, the more likely they may be to feel like it’s an expected part of their life as they grow. 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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