Personal hygiene starts with caring for your body to promote your health and wellbeing. It’s something that heavily impacts overall health, and it’s important that positive personal hygiene habits are developed from a young age. Therefore, it’s vital that parents or guardians reinforce these habits right from the start.
Importance of Personal Hygiene
Proper personal hygiene has three main benefits. First, it leads to better long-term health. “Good hygiene lowers your risk for diseases and illnesses commonly spread through viruses and bacteria,” explains Solv Health. This greatly reduces the chances of becoming sick, developing infections, or experiencing long-term health issues. On the other hand, poor hygiene habits can have a ripple effect that leads to a host of other problems. For instance, research has found a connection between poor oral care and health conditions, where it’s been linked to cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, and birth complications.
Second, good hygiene prevents comorbidity, which is when an additional medical issue arises from a co-occurring one. If, for example, someone develops gum disease because of a lack of oral hygiene, they may require more serious dental and medical interventions and may face massive medical bills — all for something easily prevented with a simple daily hygiene regimen.
Third, it helps improve mental health and confidence. People naturally tend to avoid or distance themselves from those with poor personal hygiene, making it difficult to have strong relationships. Additionally, children without grooming habits may be targets for teasing and bullying at school. Having good personal hygiene makes a person more pleasant to be around and often leads to higher self-esteem. Good oral health can be a prerequisite for someone who needs braces for a straighter smile — another feature that can figure highly in overall self-esteem.
Essential Personal Hygiene Habits
Here’s a list of essential personal hygiene habits that should be developed in childhood, along with tips on how to correctly engage in them:
- Hand washing, which should be done for 20 seconds.
- Using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available with a minimum of 60% alcohol.
- Bathing, which parents or guardians should assist with until around age five. Particular areas that should be washed thoroughly include the armpits, groin, belly, back, and feet.
- Brushing teeth should be done for two minutes, twice a day. It’s helpful to play a two-minute song when brushing teeth to make it more pleasant for a child.
- Flossing should start at around age two or three, with children usually needing assistance until age eight to 10. Flossing should be done for two to three minutes until all plaque is removed.
- Brushing hair should be done with bristles with rounded ends. Ideally, this will take place after a bath or shower.
- Clipping nails should be done after a bath or shower when they’re softer and less painful to clip. Parents or guardians should assist with this until age seven, when most kids can handle it on their own.
- Covering mouth when coughing or sneezing should be instilled at an early age and helps prevent the spread of germs.
In contrast, failing to learn positive personal hygiene can have some significant negative consequences for kids.
For instance, “failing to sufficiently wash one’s hands contributes to nearly 50% of all foodborne illness outbreaks,” according to studies of Americans’ handwashing habits. A lack of proper handwashing can also increase diarrhea-related illnesses by 30% and respiratory infections by 20%. Not clipping nails and showering shortly after a child has woken in the morning increases the likelihood of spreading pinworms, a parasite that hatches inside the intestines.
Habit Formation in Childhood
Childhood is a time when the foundation for life is laid and when habits take root. A study by Brown University found that the routines and habits formed by children are unlikely to change after age nine and remain consistent until the end of high school. This means the habits that children develop by third grade, whether good or bad, tend to stay with them throughout adolescence and often carry into adulthood. By the time children enter their teens and need to see an orthodontist to care for their permanent adult teeth, it can be difficult to establish the necessary habits for proper health maintenance.
Developing good lifelong habits in childhood sets the stage for being healthy as an adult, physically and mentally. Therefore, it’s crucial that parents or guardians get serious about teaching personal hygiene to children of all ages.
Strategies for Habit Reinforcement
From a basic psychological standpoint, this means encouraging and reinforcing positive behavior. For example, you might create a reward system where your child gets to do an activity they enjoy, like playing their favorite game, after brushing their teeth and flossing each night.
This along with plenty of praise helps reinforce the good behavior, and your child will associate brushing their teeth and flossing with positive feelings. The key to encouraging good behavior like this is to reward your child immediately after they do something positive, explains the CDC, and not waiting until they’ve forgotten about it. Here are some other strategies for reinforcing positive behavior:
- Giving your child a high five;
- Hugging them;
- Giving them a pat on the back;
- Telling them how proud you are of their good behavior;
You may even want to use a rewards program, like a chart, to track their behavior long-term and provide larger rewards for sustained positive behavior. For example, you may take them out to a movie or their favorite restaurant after they’ve consistently brushed their teeth and flossed for a week.
On the other hand, there are strategies that are less helpful or even harmful, such as negative reinforcement where something is taken away for not engaging in the correct behavior. Also, formally disciplining a child for something like this can be counterproductive.
“Discipline has always been a major part of raising a child. But, that doesn’t mean that punishment is always the best option,” says The National Alliance of Mental Illness. “In fact, there are numerous experts that now say that punishing challenging behavior isn’t as effective as we’ve been led to believe.” That’s why punishing a child for not doing something like properly bathing or brushing their teeth can actually be detrimental and is why many experts suggest mainly focusing on positive reinforcement.
This can go a long way in teaching children about hygiene and developing healthy routines without causing unnecessary trauma.