8 Healthy Habits You Should Teach Your Child as Early as Possible

Help your child learn how these habits will keep him safe and healthy

It’s important to start teaching your child healthy habits as early as possible. But rather than simply telling your child how to take care of his body or how to keep himself safe, it’s essential to teach your child the reason behind your rules.

If he grows up understanding why these habits are important—and they become like second-nature—it can prevent power struggles. Here are eight healthy habits you should start teaching your child when he’s a toddler.

1
Wash Your Hands

It's never too young to start teaching your child these healthy habits.
Image Source / Getty Images

The simple act of washing his hands can spare your child—and the whole family—from germs that can lead to infections and illness. Good hygiene is one of simplest ways to keep everyone in the family healthy.

Start instilling this healthy habit by explaining to your little one why handwashing is so important. Use simple terms that he’ll understand. Say, “Washing your hands means that we get rid of the dirt and germs that can make us sick.”

Next, enforce all the occasions where he should wash up—after going to the bathroom, when returning home from playing outside, after blowing his nose and before eating a meal. Remind your child, “You were playing in the sandbox so let's go wash the dirt and germs off you hands.”

Finally, discuss handwashing techniques. Turn on the water, pump the soap dispenser and lather up his hands, including between the fingers, for 15 to 20 seconds (or the length of the ABCs or “Happy Birthday”). Finish it up with rinsing and drying his hands.

When you don’t have access to water, use hand sanitizer. Explain to your child, “Since we can’t get to a sink right now, we’re going to use sanitizer to help kill the germs on our hands.” Just be aware that sanitizers don’t eliminate all types of germs.

2
Cover Your Mouth

Teach your little one how to use a tissue, as well as how to cough and sneeze into his elbow so as to not spread germs. It’s unlikely that a toddler will actually cover his mouth every single time he coughs or sneezes, but keep reminding him to do so. Say, “Remember, cover up those sneezes like this,” and show him how to do it.

You can also practice coughing into his elbow when he’s not sick. Show him how and encourage him to practice. Then, if he develops a cough, remind him, “Cough the germs into your elbow.”

3
Throw It Away

Now, what to do about that dirty tissue—not to mention all the other trash that your child creates on a day-to-day basis? Left to his own devices, your little one will probably just leave his tissues and wrappers on the closest table to head off to play. But, that creates the opportunity for more germs to spread.

Teach your child to put tissues and trash into the garbage can. Tell him that tissues and trash can spread germs.

Explain to him that as his parent, you’re probably willing to pick up after him. But, his teachers or his friends shouldn’t have to touch his dirty tissues. 

4
Take Care of Your Teeth

Until she’s around eight, your child will need help getting her teeth properly clean. However, you can help her get in the habit of brushing her teeth twice a day and learn the steps: wet the brush, squeeze a bit of toothpaste, brush the teeth and tongue and then rinse with water.

If your child seems hesitant to brush her own teeth, let her try it out on your teeth. Then, say “My turn!” and try to get the brush in her mouth. You might also coerce her to brush her teeth by singing a song or letting her pick a fun toothbrush. 

Once your child's teeth fit close together, it's important to start flossing. This may be anywhere between the ages of 2 and 6. Until your child has the fine motor skills to floss on his own (usually around age 10), you'll need to floss for him.

Make it a habit to see the dentist regularly as well. It's important for your child to know the dentist is there to help him keep his teeth healthy, not someone who "gives fillings." 

5
Slather on Sunscreen

Too many sunburns boosts the chance of skin cancer later in life, so it’s imperative that your child applies sunscreen when spending time outside. Shady spots, cover-ups and hats all play their part in protecting skin from the sun, but nothing does the trick like sunscreen, SPF 30 or higher. 

If you see a little bit of pink, that’s the first indication that your little one is getting a sunburn. It can take up to 12 hours to see the full spectrum of red burns. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to ears, nose, lips, and feet.

Tell your child, “Sunscreen will keep your skin from burning in the sun. Burns hurt.” A lot of children squirm and protest putting on sunscreen. Make sure your child knows it’s non-negotiable. 

6
Buckle Up

Seat belts save more than 13,000 lives a year. So it’s essential for your child to understand the importance of buckling up from an early age.

When your child is old enough to start buckling herself into a car seat, make sure you double check she’s doing it right. Say something like, “I’m so happy to see you are buckled in all safe. Great job!”

In addition, talk to your child about being a safe passenger. Explain that when you’re driving you can’t turn around and look at something she’s trying to show you because that’s not safe. Create rules for the car, such as no throwing things and no unbuckling until you say it’s time to unbuckle. 

7
Move Your Body

From a young age, it’s helpful for kids to know how to take care of their bodies. Say things to your toddler like, “We’re running and that’s good for our legs,” or “We’re stretching our hands up to the sky. That’s good for our bodies.”

Don’t talk about weight and never say things like, “Don’t eat junk food or you’ll get fat.” Instead, keep the emphasis on developing a healthy growing body. 

8
Protect Your Head

It’s important for kids to grow up with an understanding of how important it is to protect their brains. Insist your child wear a helmet whenever he’s riding a bike or a scooter or whenever he’s doing something where he could get a head injury.

Talk about protecting his brain. Tell him it’s important to make sure his brain stays healthy and hitting his head too hard could hurt his brain.

Then, when he’s older he’ll be more likely to put on a helmet when he’s skateboarding or riding an ATV and he might think twice about taking risks where he could hit his head.

Enforcing Healthy Habits

Teaching healthy habits is one thing, but getting your child to do them can be another. Like any new skill your child is learning, it’s important to practice.

When your child forgets his healthy habits, offer a reminder. Say, “Oops, the next time you cough remember to cough into your elbow.”

Praise him when you catch him doing a good job. Say, “Excellent job washing your hands.” And if he takes the initiative to do so without a reminder make sure to make that a big deal. Say, “Wow! You came in the house and remembered to wash your hands all on your own! Way to go!”

When it comes to safety issues, make sure your child knows that the rules are non-negotiable. Tell him he has to buckle up when you’re in the car. Don’t give in just because he’s crying and don’t ever make an exception because “it’s a short trip.” Doing so will open the door for your child to throw temper tantrums or become defiant when he isn’t in the mood to do what you’ve said.

Take away privileges or use time-out when necessary. But make it clear that if he’s going to ride his scooter, he can’t do it unless he’s going to be safe. Or, if he wants to play outside on a sunny day, he has to wear sunscreen.

Most importantly, be a good role model. If your child sees you engage in healthy habits every day, he'll be much more likely to do them.  If he sees you skip the helmet or get in the car without buckling, don't expect him to follow the rules without resistance.

But keep reminding him of the importance of being safe and being healthy. Your overall goal should be for your child to eventually understand, “I need to wear a helmet to protect my brain,” not, “I need to wear a helmet because Mom says I have to.”

When he understands the underlying reasons for your rules, he’ll be more likely to follow those rules when you’re not there to tell him what to do.

Sources:

Anne Arrundel County Maryland. Hand Washing

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.: Injury Prevention & Control: Motor Vehicle Safety

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Show Me the Science-When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer

Kids Health. Keeping Your Child's Teeth Healthy

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