When should children wash their hands?

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Children need to wash their hands regularly throughout the day, to prevent the spread of illnesses. Hands pick up germs throughout the day when a child touches objects (including hard surfaces like benches and toys), food and other people or body fluids.

While the hands can be washed at any time, there are some times when it’s more important for children to wash their hands than others. As a general rule they should wash their hands after touching something that might contaminate their hands with germs, and before touching something that germs from their hands might contaminate.

Throughout the day

Children can wash their hands at anytime during the day and should do it whenever their hands are visibly dirty. In addition they should wash their hands:

Before doing activities which might transfer germs on their hands into their bodies and cause infection and illness. These include:

  • Eating, to prevent germs from their hands contaminating the food while they are eating.
  • Touching food, as germs from their hands may be transferred onto the food and contaminated.
  • Coming inside, after they have been playing outside or when they are entering a new place (e.g. their childcare centre), to ensure that outside germs stay outside and are not introduced to indoor areas.
  • Touching a wound, on their own body or another person’s body, so germs from their hands don’t enter the broken skin of the wound and cause infection.
  • Touching their mouth, nose or eyes, as germs they have picked up from hard surfaces, other children’s hands or when coughing and sneezing can easily cause infection if they are transferred to the face via the hands.
  • Playing in a sandpit to avoid contaminating the sand.

But as kids, especially younger ones, have a tendency to not only touch their faces but often to stick their fingers right in their mouth or noses, washing hands after touching or doing things that may transfer germs onto their hands is also important. These include:

  • Eating, as germs from food may get transferred from food to their hands while they’re eating.
  • Touching food, as germs can grow in food, particularly raw food like meat.
  • Touching their nose, to remove germs which may be found in secretions from the nose such as cold and flu viruses.
  • Blowing their nose, as even though a tissue is used to catch the nasal mucus, it may also contaminate the hands.
  • Touching an animal, or an animal toy, as feathers, fur and all the things children love to touch are also places germs love to inhabit. Animal toys may also be contaminated from their saliva, as may leads and collars, and animal food and treats have the potential to spread germs to children’s hands.
  • Touching surfaces like benches, taps, door knobs and buttons.
  • Touching their own or someone else’s body fluids, which include urine, faeces, vomit, blood, saliva and nasal mucus.
  • Touching a wound, on their own or another person’s body.
  • Touching garbage or something that is dirty.
  • Touching dirty clothing or bedding.
  • Touching chemicals used in the home or garden, for example if they have been helping you with the cleaning or helping you to put chemicals like fertiliser or pesticide on the garden.
  • Going to the toilet, to remove germs which may have been transferred onto their hands from the toilet or their faeces or urine.
  • Having their nappy changed as their hands can pick up germs from the change mat.
  • Playing outside, for example in a sand pit.

When they are ill

When children are ill with infectious diseases like diarrhoea and the flu, washing hands is particularly important to prevent them spreading their germs and infecting other children or adults. During periods of illness, children should wash their hands at all the times they usually would (e.g. after toileting), and also:


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  • Taking medicine.
  • Playing with other children or holding a baby;
  • Touching objects that are shared, for example toys that other children play with;
  • Being close to someone who has a weak immune system, for example someone who is very old or young, as these people are more likely to become infected.


  • Coughing or sneezing. If children practice good cough and sneeze etiquette and use the sleeve of their shirt at the elbow to cover the cough or sneeze, there is less chance the hands will be contaminated, however they should still be washed after coughing and sneezing.
  • Vomiting, even if they don’t appear to contaminate their hands, they should be washed.

When around other people

Being around other children and adults puts your child at risk of getting infectious diseases like the flu from them. Even if the people they are around do not appear ill, they may still be contagious. So it’s important to be a bit more careful about hand washing when your child is around other people. At these times they should wash their hands:


  • Playing with other children.
  • Holding a baby.
  • Going close to someone who is sick, for example entering the room of a sick person, perhaps it is someone who is in hospital, or a sick sibling who is in their bedroom.


  • Visiting a friend who is sick or being close to someone who is sick. The hands should be washed as soon as possible after leaving the sick person’s room.
  • Touching another person’s body fluids, for example blood, urine or saliva.
  • Shaking or holding hands with someone who has an infection like the flu.

At childcare centre:

Children are in contact with many other children and share toys and other play equipment with them are child care centres. This creates a need for more frequent washing, because all the toys and other children your child touches in the course of the day, have the potential to contaminate their hands and cause infection. At child care centres and other facilities where children play in groups and share toys, you child should wash their hands:


  • Entering the childcare facility. This ensures that any germs which have contaminated their hands at home, are not introduced into the childcare centre, where they might for example be transferred to the surface of toys or other children’s hands.
  • Touching toys that will be shared by other children.
  • Before doing cooking classes.


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  • Playing with shared toys which may be contaminated with germs that have transferred onto their hands.
  • Playing with toys that may contaminate their hands like playdough, or playing in a sandpit.
  • A day at child care, your child should wash their hands. This prevents any germs they picked up from other kids at child care coming home with them and potentially contaminating other members of the family.

More information about handwashing techniques and activities for kids.


  1. Mayo Clinic. Hand washing- dos and don’ts. 2011. (cited 19 January 2014). Available from: (URL Link) and (URL Link)
  2. National Health and Medical Research Council. 2013. Staying healthy- preventing infectious diseases in early childhood education. 5th Ed. (cited 19 January 2014). Available from: (URL Link)
  3. National Health and Medical Research Council. Handwashing. In Preventing Infectious Diseases in Childcare. 4th Ed. 2006. (cited 19 January 2014). Available from: (URL Link)
  4. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Handwashing: Clean hands save lives. 2013. (cited 2013, September 2). Available from: (URL Link)
  5. Mayo Clinic. Guide to your baby’s first year. 2012. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Good Books. Intercourse, USA. (Book)
  6. Clinical Excellence Commission. Patient’s and Visitors- what you need to know about hand hygiene. 2006. (cited 19 January 2014). Available from: (URL Link)
  7. University of Melbourne. Prevention tips to limit the spread of colds and flu. 2013. [cited 18 April 2013]. Available from: (URL Link)
  8. South Australian Health Infection Prevention and Control. Hand Hygiene Guideline. 2010. (cited 19 January 2014). Available from: (URL Link)
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Date Created: February 26, 2014 Date Modified: March 4, 2014