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Do Daycare Workers Wash Their Hands? Not Enough, Says a New Study

Blog Do Daycare Workers Wash Their Hands? Not Enough, Says a New Study

“Handwashing is our best defense against the spread of infection,” explains Dr. Rebecca Dixon. “And it is within our control – in other words, we can choose to wash our hands properly, but we cannot control so many other events, like children putting toys in their mouths.”


Research from the University of Arkansas showed that daycare center workers washed their hands only 30 percent of the time they were supposed to. The study was recently published in the American Journal of Infection Control. Video cameras recorded hand washing (or lack thereof) of day care workers before and after tasks such as wiping noses, emptying garbage cans, preparing food, changing diapers, or using their cell phones. While caregivers only washed 30 percent of the time it was called for, paraprofessional aides only washed 11 percent.

While the study may be surprising to many parents, it’s not a shock to Rebecca Dixon, MD, a pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “Disappointed, maybe, but not surprised,” says Dr. Dixon. “As much education as there has been regarding the importance of handwashing, I am disappointed that proper handwashing rates were so low. It would be interesting to see what was the biggest offender – the more ‘quick’ contacts such as wiping a nose or touching a cell phone, or the more overt ‘dirtying of the hands’ with changing diapers or emptying trash cans.”

Day care workers are obviously juggling a number of needs at once and while they are arguably trying their best to keep a clean environment, just how important is it to constantly be washing their hands? “Handwashing is our best defense against the spread of infection,” explains Dr. Dixon. “And it is within our control – in other words, we can choose to wash our hands properly, but we cannot control so many other events, like children putting toys in their mouths.” So while kids may get sick just by the nature of being kids (mouthing everything in sight), simple handwashing can make a huge difference, she says.

One of the biggest barriers when it comes to clean hands? Not washing long enough, says Dr. Dixon. “Twenty seconds feels like a long time to people—so think about singing the ABC’s twice before being done. This is important in infection prevention.” The other obstacle is that people often don’t think an act is worthy of handwashing afterwards. “For instance,” she says, “there is the thought that ‘quick touching’ isn’t as dirtying, so many people may not feel that touching a cell phone warrants handwashing. However, a quick touch is all it can take to spread infection.”  

There’s also a proper way to wash one’s hands, says Dr. Dixon, and not everyone practices it. Here’s what you should be doing. “Use warm water and soap over the fronts and backs of your hands; people always forget the back. Then rub between your fingers, and continue to lather for 20 seconds--or as long as it takes to sing the ABC’s twice,” she says.

The study noted that young children who spend time in day care centers are two to three times more likely to acquire infections than children cared for in the home, with respiratory and GI infections posing the highest risks. Why?  “Children in daycare centers are exposed to other children – many of whom may carry illnesses well before they know they are ill,” says Dr. Dixon.  “These infections are transmitted by hands, toys and other surfaces.” Younger kids also mouth toys as well as put their hands in their mouth, thus spreading infection.  

So how should parents go about finding a day care facility that’s clean enough for their child? “Ask about handwashing policies and the teaching of proper hygiene,” suggests Dr. Dixon. 

“Inquire about the illness policies—as far as what signs and symptoms restrict children from attending day care.  Also, inquire about toy cleaning – what products are used and how often are toys and surfaces cleaned.”

Other tips for staying healthy? “Proper handwashing techniques should be used when hands are visibly soiled, however, for those times when washing with soap and water isn’t readily accessible the use of hand sanitizer is important,” says Dr. Dixon. “This can be used between contact with children and phones or between two children.  Hand sanitizer should also be applied to the front and back of hands and rubbed between fingers until the sanitizer has dried.”

-- By Judy Koutsky 

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