Hand hygiene for babies and children factsheet

Introduction

The immune system is made up of different organs, glands and cells that work together to keep your child healthy. 

The immune system in children is weaker than in adults. It needs time to develop and learn how to recognise and fight different bacteria and viruses.

Bacteria and viruses that cause childhood illness and infections can spread through:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • contact with bodily fluids like urine, poo, saliva and blood
  • eating contaminated food
  • drinking contaminated water
  • putting dirty or contaminated things in the mouth.

Children often have more contact with bacteria and viruses because they:

  • have lots of physical contact with other adults and children, like childcare or school
  • put lots of things in their mouth like their hands, dirt and toys
  • are too young to manage their hygiene
  • are too young to cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Teaching your child good hand hygiene from an early age is one of the best ways to:

  • stop the spread of illness and infection
  • build your child’s independence
  • keep your child healthy.

 Things to consider

Hand hygiene for babies

Babies cannot manage their hand hygiene, so managing the spread of germs is the responsibility of parents and carers.

Hand hygiene for babies includes:

  • keeping their nails trimmed and clean
  • wiping down toys and other objects that they will put in their mouth
  • cleaning saliva, dirt, and food off their hands regularly.

How to wash your hands

Help your children develop good hand hygiene by following these steps: 

  1. wet the hands under running water
  2. add soap to wet hands
  3. rub the hands together for longer than 20 seconds including between the fingers and thumbs
  4. rinse hands under running water until there is no more soap
  5. dry hands using a paper towel or hand dryer.
an infographic from NSW health that shows the steps of washing your hands

Teaching hand hygiene

How you teach a child to wash their hands will depend on how old they are and how they communicate. 

Remind your child to wash their hands:

  • after going to the toilet
  • before and after preparing food
  • before eating
  • after coughing or sneezing
  • after patting a pet.

Hand sanitiser

Use hand sanitiser when you have no visible dirt on your hands, and no access to soap and running water.

Hand sanitiser comes in gels, liquids, and sprays. They can be poisonous for children if swallowed, so they must be kept out of reach and used under supervision by an adult.

To use hand sanitiser:

  1. put 2-3 pumps of sanitiser in the middle of your hand
  2. rub hands together, covering all areas of both hands in the product
  3. keep rubbing your hands together until the product is gone and your hands feel dry.

If you think your child has swallowed hand sanitiser, call the NSW Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26

Nail care

Keep finger and toenails clean and trimmed to avoid illness and infection from:

  • nail-biting
  • pinworm eggs – tiny worms that infect the gut and cause illness and irritation around the bottom
  • ingrown toenails – when the side of the toenail splinters and grows into the skin, causing pain and infection 
  • tears and breakages of the fingernail and cuticle.

Use a soft nailbrush or washcloth to clean dirt from under your child’s nails, and trim them regularly using a child-safe nail clipper or nail file.

Trimming a child’s nails can be stressful for parents and carers as they move around a lot and can sometimes resist holding their hands and feet in position. 

Try things like:

  • distracting your child with a toy, song, or game
  • letting your child hold and play with the nail clippers
  • demonstrating the nail clippers on yourself first
  • trimming nails early and regularly. 

Fingernails should be cut straight across and slightly rounded at the edges. 

Toenails should be cut straight across to prevent ingrown nails.

If you accidentally cut your child’s finger, you should:

  1. rinse the cut with cool water
  2. gently apply clean gauze or a cotton pad to stop any bleeding.
Last updated Monday 27th May 2024

Disclaimer

This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.


© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024