Parents have been asking me what the most important thing is that I could recommend to keep their children healthy.
Believe it or not, my answer is always hand-washing.
All day long, your child is exposed to all kinds of germs — whenever they touch a playmate, share toys, pet their dog or cat, and so on. If they touch their eyes, nose or mouth with "germy" hands, an infection that can last for days, weeks or even longer can result. But with hand-washing, the spread of these germs can stop, and your child can remain healthy.
How often should a child wash their hands?
Certainly before meals, after using the bathroom, when coming in from outdoors, after playing with the family pet, after sneezing or coughing, or after being with someone else who is doing the same thing.
What is the proper way to do this?
If you are using the soap-and-water method, you need to wash or lather up the hands for at least 10 to 15 seconds — the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song nice and slow, or two times if you sing it fast — rubbing and scrubbing between the fingers and under fingernails and on both sides of the hands and wrists. Dry the hands with a clean towel, ideally a disposable one, and if possible use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
Don't use the same damp cloth or hand towel to wash or dry everyone's hands, or germs will spread from one child to another. If several children need to wash their hands at the same time, you may consider supervised use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead, which is just as effective as hand-washing if used under adult supervision (so children don't lick or drink the potentially dangerous chemicals in the sanitizer).
If your child does have a cold, in addition to good hand-washing, don't forget to remind them to cough or sneeze onto their sleeve and throw away any tissues they use.
Hopefully tips like this will clean up any concerns you have when it comes to knowing more about keeping your children healthy through hand-washing.
Dr. Lewis First is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.