Toddler Grooming Guide

Keep your littlest ladies and gents tidy and free from germs.

By Isadora Fox


Let's face it: Toddlers are built for speed, so complicated grooming rituals are not only impractical, they're downright impossible. There are days when getting them diapered is like stuffing an octopus into a paper bag. And to your average toddler, having a neat and clean appearance is hardly a priority when toys (and games and playmates) beckon.

At the same time, you don't want to be the parent of the child who always has dirty fingernails and messy hair (though it would be the easiest way to go). Ultimately, with some luck and good advice, you'll be able to get your toddler to look spiffy without lots of fuss. She may not let you tie the perfect bow in her hair, but she'll agree to a good brushing so long as Barbie is on the brush handle. With the right tools and techniques, you and your little ragamuffin may even have some fun.

Caring for Nails

Letting your tot's nails get overgrown is not only unsightly, it's a health hazard. Wherever hands go, fingernails go, and they have a nasty habit of holding on to whatever substance, germ-ridden or otherwise, your child gets into. Clip nails when they start to creep over the fingertip, and scrub them when your child's bath doesn't get them clean. Invest in a nailbrush designed for children, coat the bristles in soap, and gently scrub your child's nails. Happily, many nailbrushes disguise themselves as cute, colorful animals, so your toddler may even want to help out.

Nail clipping may be another story. The combination of tiny nails, a squirmy toddler, and sharp clippers seems like a recipe for disaster. Practice helps, as do the right tools. Choose child-size clippers with a magnifying glass attached so small nails are easier to see. Only cut your toddler's nails when she's relaxed or asleep. After a bath is a great time; her nails will be soft from the water, and she'll be warm and sleepy from splashing around in the tub.


They're full of nooks and crannies and seemingly impossible to clean -- your child's ears, of course. Focus on getting the outside clean. Even though the drugstore holds lots of ear cleaning tools and formulas for the inside, only your doctor can tell you if they're necessary. Sticking even the softest swab into a child's ear can hurt his eardrum, and introducing water or other fluids into the ear canal can cause a bacterial infection called swimmer's ear.

Using a moistened safety swab (these are too large to place in the ear canal) or small warm washcloth, gently rub the crevices of your child's outer ear, as well as behind the ear. To prevent swimmer's ear, dry ears with a soft cloth.


There's a good reason your mom told you to get your hair out of your face. It's annoying, and you can't see anything, which is frustrating (not to mention dangerous) for busy toddlers. But haircuts can be scary for even the most fearless kids -- what sensible person wouldn't be afraid of a stranger wielding a pair of scissors? Here, some tips for making that first salon visit fear free -- and maybe even fun.

  • Take your child with you when you get a trim to demonstrate that having a haircut doesn't hurt. Or clip a tiny bit of your child's hair with safety scissors.
  • Choose a salon that caters to kids. Balloons, coloring books, and whimsical chairs are great distractions and make the experience a lot more palatable to a nervous toddler. If there isn't one in your area, ask your friends to recommend a stylist who works well with children, and arrange to have your toddler meet him before you make an appointment.
  • Swing by the salon for a visit before haircut day so your child can watch the other kids get the royal treatment.


Toothbrushing may be the least challenging of the grooming rituals. Appeal to your toddler's sense of independence (only big boys and girls get to brush their own teeth), provide some tasty toothpaste and a small, soft toothbrush, and the task may be greeted with the same enthusiasm as a new toy. Before bed is the most important time to brush a child's teeth; decay-causing bacteria are more likely to grow at night, when your child's mouth is closed for a long period of time. Place a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your tot's brush (too much fluoride can stain teeth) and encourage him to give each tooth a good scrub. He may only concentrate on the front, so remind him to get the teeth hiding in the back. Show him how to rinse thoroughly with water, and then carefully brush his teeth yourself, as young children usually don't get into all of the cracks and crevices. By the time he's in second or third grade, he'll be able to brush his teeth on his own.


Teaching your toddler to wash his hands regularly is good for his health: Clean hands mean fewer colds and stomach viruses. Before Handwashing 101 begins, consider investing in a cute stepping stool so your toddler can easily access the sink. A liquid-soap decanter filled with fruity soap makes the process even more enticing. Before a meal or after a potty session, lead your child to the sink and help him coat his hands with soap and warm water. Then, sing "Happy Birthday" twice as he scrubs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it's the perfect amount of time needed to get hands clean. Whenever a handwashing opportunity arises, prompt him by asking, "What do we do now?" and praise him if he remembers. Positive reinforcement will help make washing second nature.

Using the Potty

Your toddler may have mastered using the potty, but cleaning himself up afterward is another matter. It's hard for a small child to wipe an area he can't see. If you have a boy, teach him to dab his penis with toilet tissue after he urinates. (When he gets more coordinated, he can adopt the "shake" method.) Teach kids to wipe from front to back to avoid urinary tract infections. Until they're 4 or 5, they'll need help cleaning up, so let your child try, then finish the job yourself.

Grooming Supplies

Cute brush-and-comb sets, clever nail clippers, and tear-free shampoos and conditioners are good grooming investments. Their strong kid appeal helps make cleanup time more of a fun game and less of a hassle.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2004.