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Monday, December 20, 2010

Sick kids: fun ways to teach your small child about hygiene

Hands up everyone who likes having a sick child?
Mmm, that's what I thought... it's one of the most trying parts of being a parent.  Quite apart from the anxiety associated with your beloved baby being ill, there's the huge stress of deciding how sick they are, and whether to try to send him or her to school or daycare if you have to go to work yourself- with the risk they'll be sent home anyway, and you'll cop the reproachful look or lecture from the teacher on top of your other worries. Better to try to avoid illness in the first place.  So, how can we optimise a small child's health?

A few simple hygiene practices are easy enough to teach.  Let's start with teaching your child to blow their own nose, or at least blow through their nose so you can catch the slime before it drips... eurgh. That way they won't be passing their germs to your whole family as well as all their classmates, and with any luck other families have taken the same steps to protect your little one.
If you ask a little kid to blow their nose without any explanation, chances are they won't have a clue what you want. It's all about body awareness, which they're still learning.  Start when they're NOT all clogged up, by teaching them the concept of 'blow' using a feather or some confetti (be careful of making blowing out birthday candles into a game though, as we don't want them burning the house down!) and getting them to move it around on the table by blowing through 'kissy lips' or a straw.  Then tell them to try to move the feather or confetti with their lips tightly closed (no straw of course), but still blowing- through their nose.  (Throw it all away afterwards, without handling it directly- yuk!- and wipe that table with disinfectant. Point out the yukky wet droplets on the table first and tell them that's the germs.) 
Next time they've got a cold, you can ask them to blow like they're blowing a feather WITH THEIR LIPS CLOSED while you hold the tissue (you can do a little demonstration, gently! without the tissue in the way). Then it's only a matter of time before they get sick of you shoving a tissue in front of their face and declare 'I can do it!!'.
Some children really don't like having someone wipe their nose.  But it has to happen! I always say to them, 'Your lip will get sore with that yukky stuff on it all the time,'  which is true, as I grab them and wrestle the tissue across their face... at least TELL them why you're invading their space.  They deserve that much respect.
Another way of teaching them nose-breathing is to get them to breathe (not blow) on some glasses (an old pair of sunglasses will do) to mist them over, first with their mouth and then with their nose, ie mouth shut. Kids love to see a result- it helps them focus on the different body feelings of breathing through nose and mouth- and when they look through the misty glasses they'll also get a concrete idea of what comes out when they cough or sneeze.  Germs LOOOVE moisture. Every germ should be imagined to be wearing a swimming costume. 
Which brings us to washing our hands. Do I really need to mention that you need to model doing this at the appropriate times? Before eating and after toileting and blowing noses are the crucial ones. A little dirt doesn't hurt, but if there's any chance that your child has played with something that a sick person has touched or that has been anywhere near animal droppings, WASH.
Start by telling your baby their hands need a bubble bath, and making lots of little bubbles by rubbing wet soapy hands together.  Too much fun! Make sure you wash your hands at the same time. Modelling the behaviour you want is always the best way, and you can start teaching hand washing as soon as they can stand up at the basin on their little toilet step, or even while they're in the bath.
Once they're into bubble making, show them how to do the backs of their hands.  That's a bit harder for them to grasp... make in into a game where you say quietly 'front...front...front... front...' then suddenly loudly, 'BACKS!!' as you demonstrate.  Guaranteed giggles.
Spreading their soapy fingers and weaving them together so they can wash in between is even more tricky. Get them to make a 'little hand' with fingers together, then a 'big hand' with their fingers spread apart. Again, make it a game- you can even play Simon Says with this. When they 'get' the idea of the big hand, tell them their hands are going to cuddle each other... sloooooowly bring your spread hands together and clasp them (adding a funny noise when they meet will get you more giggles).  Help them do the same. Then say 'Now your hands are going to tickle each other!' and get them to wiggle their fingers while their hands are clasped together.  Or you could try 'clap and tickle', if you can stand the bubbles going everywhere when they clap (even more giggles).
To do their nails, get them to 'scrape the bad germs off their hands' (make a good yukky face here!) by scratching their nails back and forth across their palms. Turn it into a counting lesson too-  'one hand... two hands!' to make sure they do both.
Kids enjoy washing their wrists by being told to 'put the handcuffs on and try to escape' or 'put a nice bracelet of bubbles around your wrist, now wash your bracelet...' -the possibilities for games are endless, and children respond so much better to games than to nagging.
It's very important to teach your kids to dry their hands thoroughly- like I said, germs are all dressed in their swimmers just hanging out to take a ride into your body on every drop of moisture. Help them to dry their hands at first, and keep telling them you're hunting the bad germs hiding in the wet bits.  Get them to help you look for wet bits on their hands, especially between their fingers. Make a drama of it! 'HAH! Gotcha, germs! Any more hiding here? HAH! Gotcha!' Make them laugh, and they stand a chance of remembering how to do it properly and maybe even copying you when they're on their own at school.
And don't forget to teach them to use 'big hands' under blow driers when you go to public toilets. Those germs are hiding in the cracks!
What about coughing?  Many parents were taught to cough into their hand to avoid spreading germs. Best practice these days is to teach your kids to cough into their elbow, because after they cough into their hand they have a lovely handful of germs which gets slimed all over the next thing they touch (eurgh). If they see you coughing into your hand, or without even a hand over your mouth, guess who they're going to copy? Not their poor schoolteacher, that's for sure.  Remember, YOU are their role model of choice.
When I was little, my mother was convinced that I'd get sick if I went out in the rain or left the house with wet hair, and I'd probably die if I ingested dirt of any kind.  Most of this was bollocks- she meant well, but it was a long time ago and medical understanding of immunity was limited.  Today popular medical opinion suggests that none of these things will put a healthy child on its death bed, in fact quite the opposite- some children are so over-protected that they never develop a satisfactory immune system, and actually get sick more often as a result. So it's more important that you encourage hand-washing at the appropriate times and teach kids to keep their cold germs to themselves than it is that you keep them in a bubble away from the Big Bad Dirty World. As a teacher, I can assure you that the children who do wash their hands properly (and at the right times) and who are kept home when they're sick UNTIL THEY'RE WELL are the ones with the best overall attendance records, and fact that they also seem to be the ones who love jumping in puddles in the rain and drenching each other with water pistols has nothing to do with it..
And a final word from the teacher in me... DON'T send a child with a greenish-yellow running nose or diarrhoea or a temperature or a rash to day care or school.  The child will be miserable, you will inevitably get a phone call from a cranky teacher, you'll turn up to pick them up feeling defensive  which will make your child feel even more miserable (because they sense that you're not happy and assume it's their fault), and all the other parents and teachers will be thoroughly annoyed with you. 'Everyone else sends their kids when they're sick' does NOT cut it as an excuse; set a responsible example please. Organise a sitter, or stay home.  That's the price of choosing to be a parent.  Here endeth the lesson!

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