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Teaching Kids How To Not Spread Germs

woman helping little girls wash their hands at a sink

Child washing hands - teaching kids how to not spread germs Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2014.

Wouldn’t it be great if our preschoolers would resist sharing germs the same way they do toys? Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, so it’s important for parents to keep those bugs from spreading.

According to pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Ashley Roberts of BC Children’s Hospital, “The number one way to reduce bacterial germs in any environment is to vaccinate your kids. Not only are they safe from those particular illnesses, but they also have less risk of developing infections from antibioticresistant superbugs.”

Since most diseases are spread through contact, the next step is to keep hands as clean as possible. “There’s a lot of evidence behind this,” says Dr. Roberts. Once they’ve been trained appropriately, preschoolaged kids should be able to handle the task themselves. “There are some great videos on Youtube that parents and care providers can use to teach kids to wash properly, with their hands under the water for at least 20 seconds,” she suggests.

At her home daycare in Lindsay, Ont., Jamie Moore reads books about handwashing and how to stop the spread of germs, such as Germs Are Not For Sharing by Elizabeth Verdick. “Books really help kids to understand the concepts,” says Jamie, “and it makes it fun for them, too.”

What about hand sanitizers? “There’s no great evidence that products claiming to be ‘antibacterial’ confer any real benefit,” says Dr. Roberts, “and we know they change the natural flora of our skin and gastrointestinal tract, which could actually cause some harm.”

Encouraging kids to keep their hands away from their faces can also keep germs from getting in, “and absolutely no sharing of drinks or food,” says Jamie.

It’s also valuable to teach kids to cough into their elbow (modeling will reinforce this habit) and use tissues for sneezes and runny noses.

While some parents and care providers are religious about cleaning and disinfecting, Dr. Roberts feels “stressing ourselves out by trying to decontaminate our environment is an exercise in futility.” She suggests being reasonable in terms of cleaning surfaces with soap and water, but not obsessing over it.

When to stay home

Dr. Roberts says conjunctivitis (pink eye) and diarrhea are two good reasons to keep your child home, and adds that “if they have an active runny nose, they’re going to be highly infective to other kids for those first three days.” Rashes should be checked by a doctor in case they’re contagious.

Jamie sympathizes with parents who need to get to work. “I realize not every parent has sick days or backup plans, so I fully expect kids to still come with mild symptoms, and I just try to keep them separated in the house. I do ask parents to keep kids home with fever, vomiting, diarrhea or eye discharge.”

The rules are similar at Ashleigh Leahy’s Peterborough, Ont., daycare. “Kids are usually contagious before they even show symptoms, so chances are, whatever they have, the others here have already been exposed to it. I’m not going to expect parents to take off work for a cold.”

Many daycares require kids to stay home until 24 hours after symptoms have disappeared, or until they’ve been treated with antibiotics for 24–48 hours. It can be tempting to push the limits (we recently went through three bouts of strep throat, so I know), but it’s important to be clear about and respect any policies that are in place, and to follow your doctor’s orders.

When it comes to playdates and extracurriculars, it’s best to keep your sick child home. They’ll get better more quickly, and you’ll also avoid the glares from other parents (hey, we’ve all been there – probably on both ends of that look!).

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