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How to make handwashing for toddlers more fun — and the routine

Updated: Mar 14

Want your toddler to wash hands after using the potty? Sharing 6 handwashing tips — plus the best options for toddler hand soap.

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Here's a stat straight from the CDC that may burst your hygiene bubble:

Handwashing with soap could protect about 1 out of every 3 young children who get sick with diarrhea.

K, I really did blurt out the word diarrhea to kick this off. Cue flashback to kids belting out the Diarrhea Song in the back of Steve Martin's van in Parenthood.

So yes, it's important to wash hands. Adults. Kids.

Most especially toddlers learning to wipe their bums.

Not to say that dirt is bad. We know dirt is a healthy part of a developing immune system.

Play in the dirt AND wash hands after using the potty. Both can co-exist, yah?

But HOW can you create a routine around handwashing for toddlers?

What about when you have a kid who wants to bolt?

Because there are plenty of toddlers who want to poop and run. Especially in the early days of potty training.

Let's dive in to the nitty-gritty of creating a routine around the soapy rinse-wash that's a must for potty training toddlers!

1. Teaching kids to wash hands starts with explaining the WHY.

I love potty books for learning about how the world works — a simple way to spark chats with your toddler. Picture books show your child what to do and WHY we do what we do.

One of my favorite potty books on the topic is What are Germs?

It's a lift-the-flap picture book that's explains the why for handwashing. As we know two-year-olds and threenagers love to chime in with that constant Q of WHY, WHY, WHY?

Pete the Cat was a favorite in our house during the toddler years, and there's an easy reader book on Pete the Kitty Wash Your Hands.

I like how this book is a simple step-by-step for a toddler washing hands.

What do you do first?

Turn on the water and wet your hands.

What comes next?

Scrub with soap.

Rinse with water.

Then dry your hands.

And then the book brings a snappy sequence for toddlers to remember it. Because less language is always better when you're trying to direct a toddler to do something.

As Pete the Kitty shares in this book on washing hands, it's as simple as..

splish, scrub, splash, rub.

Start having chats with your toddler about this everyday routine we all do — and why!

2. Make the sink easy-to-reach for toddlers to wash hands.

You'll want to be sure you have a two-step stool for your toddler to reach that sink. The best way to make this skill routine is to set up your toddler to do ALL the parts on their own.

illustration toddler washing hands at sink on step stool
Set up a stepstool at the sink.

What about at daycare and preschool?

With daycare and preschool bathrooms, often they're set up with low sinks sized just right for little kids.

If your toddler's preschool uses a converted adult bathroom, check to be sure there's a stool for your toddler to reach the sink.

A one-step plastic stool is typically enough in a preschool bathroom to give a toddler a boost to the sink.

helping toddler washing hands

If your toddler's preschool doesn't have a bathroom stool, consider connecting with the teachers to see if it's something you can donate to their bathroom.

What about when you're out and about using public bathrooms and your toddler needs to wash hands?

That's where I like to use the trick of superhero legs since your toddler will need a boost up from you to reach the water and soap in your grocery store's stall bathroom.

The trick to see less toddler resistance?

Make it silly. Make it fun.

Who doesn't love to turn into a superhero to wash their hands? And it helps your toddler have some buy-in to the process.

Which superhero is your toddler pretending to be today? Toddlers love to share with inquiring minds.

Here we go to the sink. Superhero legs!
And soap, scrub.
All done.

3. Explain the steps — a visual checklist can help.

The steps for teaching kids to wash hands will vary based on the type of soap you use. There are a few options!

If you use a bar of soap: Bars of soap can be an easier option for toddler hand soap.

Standard liquid hand soap bottles can be tricky for some toddlers to pump.

Check to be sure your child can work your soap pump by themselves.

bar of soap at bathroom sink
A bar of soap can be easier for teaching handwashing for toddlers.

From one of my favorite parenting books, The Montessori Toddler, Simone Davies shares:

One way to solve problems with toddlers is to make a simple checklist with them (especially one with pictures.)
Then we can check the chart to see what we need to do next. That way it's the chart doing the work, not us. "Can you see what is next on the list?"

Here are my go-to printables for creating a visual reminder around the everyday tasks, including using the potty and washing hands.

4. Create a ritual to make it more routine (and fun.)

We know timing matters with washing hands. The ideal time frame for washing hands with soap is 20-30 seconds.

Of course, toddlers don't have a concept of time.

So how to teach your toddler HOW LONG to wash their hands?

Make handwashing for toddlers fun by creating a ritual of singing a song while washing hands!

Our go-to handwashing song was Mr. Sun. We'd sing that together (especially in the early days of potty training) while practicing washing hands with soap.

Happy Birthday is a common song parents weave into the handwashing ritual.

Choose a simple song for your child to focus on while handwashing. That helps avoid the toddler tendency to turn on faucet, reach for soap...and a matter of milliseconds.

Likewise, you don't want your toddler to turn handwashing into the new afternoon activity. Running water in your sink with no desire to stop!

Psst: If you see that problem of your toddler not wanting to STOP washing and playing with the water, check out the Handwashing Lesson by Montessori parent educator Aubrey Hargis. With a basin and a pitcher of water (ahem, a finite amount of water!) for practice.

If you use a liquid soap: see if your toddler can use your soap pump. Some can be tricky for small hands.

And check that the soap is in easy reach for your toddler on a stepstool.

5. Role model handwashing after using the bathroom, even before you start potty training.

A great way to prep your child for this new expectation — that your toddler washes hands after using the potty — is showing your child how you do it, too. The more you can normalize the routine and role model the task, the less resistance you tend to see.

Even before you jump into potty training, it helps to bring your toddler into the bathroom with you. And show your child what happens after you use the toilet.

We all wash our hands!

mom washing hands at bathroom sink
Role model handwashing for your toddler.

The more you fold it into the routine, the more your toddler will see this is a job that everyone does. Whenever you use the potty. Wherever you are.

After you use the potty, you wash hands...

Whether you're home.

You're at the library bathroom.

You're at Grandma's house.

Here, there, and everywhere!

6. Watch your language in how you prompt your toddler to wash hands.

As a child, Montessori was my first start with school. And my kids also got their start in Montessori preschools. I'm a firm believer in how well Montessori systems at home help kids learn to be more independent in everyday tasks (like being kitchen helpers!).

Take a look at the handwashing lesson that Montessori homeschool educator Aubrey Hargis of Child of the Redwoods shares. You'll just need a few supplies on hand for setting up toddlers to make soapy bubbles and wash hands.

A great Montessori word to weave into your reminder for a toddler to wash hands after the potty....

That three-letter word, J-O-B.

It's our job to wash hands after using the potty.

Because if you want your child to take on the task of washing hands after using the potty, don't set it up as an ask.

Set up the task as a clear expectation. We all have jobs in the family.

This is one job, to wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.

Now that we have the how-to part down, what about the toddler hand soap?

Here are a few favorite options for setting up a handwashing station for little kids:

concentrated bar of hand soap
This concentrated bar of soap makes a gallon of liquid hand soap!

What if you like the idea of using bars of soap (less plastic, less weight being shipped around), but it's not practical for your home. Some bar soaps can gunk up the drains easier. Or maybe you have a child who's more motivated to wash hands with a soap pump? Enter the concentrated hand soap bar! It's the best of both worlds, in my humble opinion. We've been using this Tangie hand soap at home in a foam soap pump and it works so well. One little bar makes one gallon of liquid soap!

It's just as sudsy as the refillable liquid hand soaps I've bought in the past (but less packaging, less waste.)

  • Fun alternative soap for toddlers...hand soap pens! Kids use these tubes of handsoap to draw on their hands like a marker. Make a scribble and then wash it away under the water. Sometimes having a fun hook helps the child to be open to a new task.

Do what works for your family in terms of hand soap.

You want to create a consistent routine of use the potty, wash hands, and away you go.

Especially when trying to avoid the dreaded stomach bug from hitting your house.

potty training cheatsheets


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