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Insistence on Clean Hands: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Recently our two-year-old has become a bit of a fanatic about cleaning her hands. Often I don’t even see what she’s complaining about, but I help her to wash it off anyway. Is this an early sign of OCD?

Ready with the Wipes

Dear RwtW,

This is a very normal development.

Oral Learning

At first, a baby’s mouth is the best route for her to learn about the world around her. She learns with her eyes, too, but gets a lot of information about taste, texture, temperature, shape, and squishiness from using her lips, tongue, and palate to explore the objects she is able to get into her mouth.

Her learning experiences provide her with:

Comparisons – such as warmer and colder,

Preferences – bananas yes, mashed asparagus no,

Memory checks – have I tasted this before?

and other information long before she has words to categorize all the objects.

Her curiosity for mouthing everything that comes her way is, in part, nature’s way of insuring that she is interested in food. But oral learning also provides rich content in the physical aspects of many kinds of matter.

Touchy Feely

Around 18 months the nerve endings in the palms and fingertips seem to come alive. This is when water play, sand play, and playdough may start to fascinate her. While formerly she was putting everything in her mouth, now she wants to touch everything. This could include smearing her food in her plate (or on the table) and playing with your hair and jewelry. Hopefully not in quick succession.

There are plenty of board books designed to fulfill this strong need to touch different textures. Pat the Bunny (1940) by Dorothy Kunhardt is the classic touch-interactive board book which encourages comparisons of Daddy’s scratchy cheeks with the bunny’s soft fur. Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar was one of the first board books to include finger holes for tiny readers to touch. You will find a plethora of touch and feel books designed for little hands at the public library.

Look for other touchable experiences around the house and yard, or just follow your child’s lead. She may discover: texture differences in fabrics (e.g., corduroy vs. denim), crisscross patterns in rattan furniture, raised designs in floor tile, variations in tree bark, smooth vs. rough surfaces on rocks, the bumpy surface of a pinecone, the whisper soft feel of a bird feather, etc., etc., etc.

Food can continue to interest her mouth, but think of planning her food experiences to add interesting touch sensations. You can add words to what her fingers are telling her. A blueberry has a smooth surface. A strawberry has a bumpy surface. Frozen peas are cold to the touch. Cooked noodles are warm.

Wipe it Clean

Hand washing is a good habit to foster, especially to prevent catching germs, so indulge your little one while she’s highly motivated to keep her hands clean. This is easy enough at home, but not too difficult if you plan ahead when out and about.

By the way, a container of homemade hand wipes is much less expensive than a store-bought container. Just cut a roll of paper towels in half using a serrated knife, insert it into an empty container (a plastic coffee can works nicely) and add boiled or distilled water. If you like, mix a little liquid soap into the water before adding it. Serious DIY-ers recommend carefully removing the inner cardboard tube and using the innermost sheet as the starter wipe, just like the manufactured version. There shouldn’t be any mold growth if you go through your roll quickly – within a couple of weeks.

If you’d like to be even more ecologically conservative, just take a wet wash cloth along, in a sealable plastic bag or box. Your palm-sensitive child might appreciate a dry towel, too.

Developmentally normal touch sensitivity will soon enough be replaced with questions, questions, questions. There’s so much to learn about!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  The museum is now open for timed visits for families and small groups by reservation.

Dr. Wood will be presenting a Zoom workshop for parents and professional caregivers entitled: “Temperament Differences – From Easy to Difficult” on Monday, May 9, 7-9 pm. Register online or by phone: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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