The ABCs of teaching your child healthy hygiene habits


While teaching kids proper health and hygiene practices are crucial and help keep germs at bay, as kids across the country get set to resume what is sure to be a unique school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping clean to avoid illness is more important than ever.

When it comes to COVID-19, according to the Government of Canada, the virus is most commonly spread from an infected person to another person through:

  • Close contact: Breathing in someone's respiratory droplets after they cough, sneeze, laugh or sing.
  • Contaminated surfaces: Touching something with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes with unwashed hands.
  • Common greetings: Handshakes, hugs or kisses.

This is why it's so important to practice hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, physical distance at least two metres (or six feet) from others, wear non-medical masks or face coverings when indoors and clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces.

Read more: Back to school: tips to keep your kids healthy and safe

The more you know…

When it comes to talking to your kids about COVID-19, the Canadian Pediatric Society suggests being "realistically reassuring" to help build resilience. That means helping them sort facts from fiction, being mindful of the media and help them to understand, verbalize and organize their own feelings around the pandemic.

One more way is by helping them feel like they have some control by empowering them to protect themselves through healthy hygiene habits. This includes:

  • Get washing. Appropriate, frequent handwashing (show them how and when) for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren't available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. You can help your child time their handwashing by singing a song, like the ABCs or Happy Birthday. Also, frequently remind them that they should not touch their eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze. When coughing or sneezing, encourage them to do so into a tissue or the bend of their arm, not their hand. Then, dispose of any tissues into a lined wastebasket as soon as possible and encourage them to wash their hands immediately after. While kids learn better from being shown instead of just told, this video can help illustrate these steps.
  • Keep your distance. Physical distancing is proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This means avoiding crowded places, common greetings, such as handshakes, and limiting contact with people at higher risk and keeping a distance of at least two arms-length (approximately 2 metres) from others. This one is tough, especially for smaller children who thrive on hugs and physical contact, but assure them that this is not the same as "emotional distancing." They can greet their friends in other ways, such as virtual hugs (a hugging motion while they stand apart from each other), elbow taps or a wave.

Read more: Raising healthy kids: Mental health a huge challenge for Canadian youngsters

  • Mask up. While it is recommended for periods of time when it's not possible to consistently maintain a two-metre physical distance from others, wearing a mask or non-medical face covering can be a challenge for kids. Wearing a mask for a long period of time, like the duration of a school day, can be uncomfortable, and they might tell you they find it hard to breathe. While younger children in most provinces (those in Kindergarten to Grade 3) are not required to wear masks or face coverings while at school, it doesn't hurt to familiarize your child with wearing one. You should explain why masks are important, normalize face masks through play (i.e. give your child a mask for their favourite stuffed animal), provide fun and colourful mask options and model the behaviour by wearing a mask yourself. Here are some things to keep in mind to ensure their mask fits properly:
    • It fits securely to the head with ties or ear loops,
    • It maintains its shape after washing and drying,
    • It must be made of at least two layers of tightly-woven material (such as cotton or linen), and
    • It must be large enough to completely and comfortably cover the nose and mouth without gaping.
  • Wipe it down. The virus is most likely to be on surfaces you frequently touch with your hands. Asking kids to help you wipe down and disinfect surfaces reinforces their understanding of how this virus is spread through droplets.

Returning to school in the next normal

As they continue to practice these healthy hygiene habits, you should also help set the stage for what to expect and what might look different than in previous years if their return to school consists of in-person classes. This includes preparing them for teachers and staff wearing face masks and/or shields, frequent physical distancing reminders, the use of non-medical masks (where appropriate by age) and increased handwashing/sanitizing and cleaning.

Read more: Back to school medication tips – preparing an emergency medication plan


The best way to get your child to understand the importance of healthy hygiene is to teach them to practice from an early age. Since kids tend to be creatures of habit and thrive on schedules, repetition is key. You may also have to help your child practice hygiene habits. This will help boost their self-esteem and confidence.

Don't be afraid to talk openly and honestly with your child about the importance of maintaining good hygiene. Not only will it help them weather the pandemic, it will also help you manage the more difficult personal hygiene issues that are likely to come up when they are teenagers. It's also important to remind them that this won't last forever, but while it does, you will be there to support, help and answer any questions they might have.