Hand Washing 101: Showing Kids How to Properly Wash Hands

Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on March 10, 2023

Handwashing is one of the best -- and easiest -- ways to protect your child from germs that could make them sick. These include cold and flu viruses, as well as the virus that causes COVID-19.

It’s more likely to become a lifelong habit when you start teaching them early. Here’s what they need to know.

Teach your child these five easy steps and practice doing each of them well.

Wet your hands. It doesn’t matter if the water is hot or cold. Then grab the soap. It doesn’t have to be antibacterial -- regular soap is just fine. 

Lather. Next, rub your hands together to make bubbles. Don’t forget the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. 

Scrub. Keep scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. Sing the “Happy Birthday” song or another favorite to keep track of the time. 

Rinse well. Put your hands back under the running water to get all the soap off. 

Dry. Wipe your hands with a clean cloth or paper towel. It’s also OK to let them air dry.

It’s a good idea for kids to wash their hands often, especially during cold and flu season. But it’s most important after they’ve touched something dirty or germy, or at times when germs are more likely to spread. These include:

  • After using the bathroom
  • Before eating
  • Before touching their mouth, eyes, or nose
  • After touching a pet or pet food
  • After touching stuff outside like a swing set or stick
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing their nose
  • After touching trash or cleaning up
  • After touching a dirty diaper or wipe

If there’s no running water, show them how to use hand sanitizer. It doesn’t get rid of as many germs, but it’s better than nothing. Follow these steps:

  • Use enough sanitizer to cover the front and back of your hands and between your fingers.
  • Rub your hands together until they feel dry (about 20 seconds).
  • Don’t rinse or wipe off the sanitizer before it dries.

Any hand sanitizer you use should have at least 60% alcohol. Don’t use baby wipes in place of handwashing or hand sanitizer. They don’t get rid of germs. Tell your child to wash their hands with soap and water as soon as they can.

These can make it easier for children to learn and stick to good handwashing habits:

  • Lead by example -- your kids learn a lot by watching you.
  • Remind your kids often to wash their hands until it becomes a habit.
  • Make it fun by singing a song or turning it into a game.
  • Remind them that we can’t see germs, so it’s important to wash even when your hands look clean.
  • Remind them that regular handwashing helps keep them well so they don’t miss birthday parties and other fun activities.
  • Be patient with them -- learning good habits take time.

Show Sources


CDC: “Handwashing: A Family Activity,” “When and How to Wash Your Hands,” “Hand Sanitizer Use Out and About.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Keep kids’ hands clean with soap and water, not antibacterial products.”

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Teaching Kids to Wash Their Hands.”

KidsHealth: “Hand Washing: Why It’s So Important.”

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