Let’s face it: Kids are microbe magnets. They also like to share. These tiny humans don’t enter the world knowing that spraying a sneeze into your face or wiping their runny noses and then putting their grubby little hands into their mouths are a big “No-no.” But they can learn from you. “Kids mirror the behavior they see from the adults in their lives,” says Amy Edwards, MD, a pediatric infectious disease expert at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, OH.

That means it’s up to you to help kids learn that even though sharing is caring, nobody wants their germs. Not only can you teach good hygiene manners, you can also potentially reduce the number of colds and potentially other ailments that can plague your kids. And it can even be fun.

Soap and Water Are Your Friends

Most kids get anywhere from six to eight colds a year, even more if they are in crowded places like day care. One of the first lines of defense is hand-washing, a prevention tactic that we’ve been hearing a lot about since the COVID-19 outbreak. Hand-washing for about 20 seconds can do the trick.

There are only five steps to hand-washing: wet, lather, scrub, rinse, and dry. “It’s important for kids to learn to wash their hands after going to the bathroom, touching a potentially germy surface, before and after eating, playing with pets or playing outside, and after a cough or sneeze,” says Renee Slade, MD, a pediatrician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Since kids love making a mess, lathering up shouldn’t be a problem, and to hit that 20 second mark sing “Happy Birthday” twice or play a counting game. Since kids mirror the adults in their lives, the example of  you washing your hands could go a long way in teaching your child proper hygiene.

Inside of the Elbow Trick

When you’re sneezing or coughing and don’t cover your face you blow germs on your unsuspecting friends and can leave those germs on nearby surfaces. So learning to cover your cough and sneeze with the inside of your elbow can really help. “The inside of the elbow is great because not only will it help stop the spread of germs, but it’s also a place you don’t touch a lot,” Slade says.

Again, the best way to teach this trick is by doing it yourself. But you can also turn it into a game or even a dance called the dab. Just put one arm straight in the air and bend the other elbow to your face. Your child will laugh at you – or with you – all the while learning good cough and sneeze etiquette.

Don’t let your kids wipe up their runny noses on the inside of their elbows. Instead, teach them all about tissue. Or go eco-friendly with handkerchiefs. “I keep a special drawer filled with handkerchiefs and my kids know to get some when they are sneezing or coughing, and they think it’s fun,” Edwards says.

Maybe you’re lucky and your child prefers green leafy vegetables to tater tots smothered in ranch dressing. If not, you’re not alone. But good nutrition is important in building a child’s immune system to fight off germs. “Very simply, a good balanced diet will provide all the nutrients necessary to help build up children’s immune system so they can fight a cold,” Slade says. And if they’re healthy, a tater tot feast every now and then won’t hurt.

The Best Medicine Is on Your Plate

Balanced immune-boosting means eating foods high in nutrients, like beta carotene, from carrots and tomatoes, and vitamin C, from citrus fruits and berries. Proteins from milk, eggs, lean meats, fish, and legumes are very important, too. Don’t forget about vitamin D found in fish and eggs, or fortified milk. And yogurt can be a great treat providing gut bacteria that’s also good for immunity.

To get your child to eat healthy, variety can be the spice of life. “What a child prefers to eat starts at a pretty young age, so it’s important to expose your child to a variety of healthy foods since the more they sample, the more they may enjoy,” Edwards says. As your kids gets older, make it fun by allowing them to choose what they’d like from the good-for-you foods you offer. Giving kids a little say in the matter is a lot more fun than cutting vegetables and fruits into animal shapes.

A Little Dirt Is Good for You

Playing outside is good for you and for your kids. Sure, they may get a little filthy, but their immune system is getting a big boost from all that exercise and maybe even the dirt. “I absolutely encourage my kids to play outdoors and get dirty and explore because it helps build their immune systems,” Edwards says.

According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” our ultra-sanitized environments don’t offer enough exposure to germs that can “teach” the immune system to learn how to fight off infectious organisms.

All that outdoor activity can also better promote a good night’s sleep. And that’s important to a child’s immune health. “If adults or children don’t get enough sleep, certain chemicals that help fight infections are reduced,” Edwards says. And that means your child might be more prone to getting that stuffy nose.

Sometimes It’s Best Not to Share

You want your kids to share. But explain to them that sharing things like food or drinks, eating utensils, and straws is too much of a good thing. It can spread the germs that make them and their friends sick.

Colds Are a Fact of Life

Can all this fun and good advice keep your child completely cold-free? “Absolutely not,” Edwards says. The point is to try and reduce the number of infections, since eliminating them completely is virtually impossible.

Common-sense strategies like hand-washing, covering your mouth and nose, eating and sleeping well, and getting your child vaccinated against the flu can go a long way toward keeping those young immune systems primed for battle. “I don’t want kids to live in a bubble; I want them to be kids and have fun,” Edwards adds.

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