Kids are dirt magnets. There is no getting away from it. Every parent knows when they send their kid to daycare or school in a clean, crisp outfit they will not return that way. Wrinkled with grass, food, dirt, and art supply stains are expected. What comes to mind however, is that if their clothes are getting this dirty, what does that say about their hands or what is entering their mouths.
Bacteria likes to hang out with grime and dirt, so most parents get anxious about too much. But is all the worry really necessary? It's not just their clothes and hands, it is every toy that they pick up and put in their mouth, every utensil they use. Dirt essentially surrounds us all. Hearing this is enough to make parents cringe, springing to the rescue with soap, water and antibacterial spray. These dramatic efforts may all be in vain because scientists are now showing that a little dirt never hurt.
Initially children are heavily inoculated with bacteria from their mother's birth canal. Breast feeding exposes more maternal defenses. Once breast feeding ceases, the child is exposed to environmental bacteria. Certain experiences can change this early exposure causing bacterial infections to be more dangerous. Being born via cesarean, bottle feeding instead of breast feeding, and sleeping away from the mother. There has also been an over-reliance on antibiotics which interferes with a child's natural defense system.
What exactly is the damage done by over-sterilizing our kids, surfaces, and objects? Our bodies have natural bacteria hunters called neutrophils that are experts at removing bacteria and protecting us. When we remove too many bacteria with sterilization, the nuetrophils become bored and pro-inflammatory. The downside is that as soon as a pathogen or foreign substance is identified, the neutrophils are in overdrive and the inflammatory response is explosive which leads to allergy development.
Exposure to the microbes of our environment are actually beneficial to our immune systems, especially in the younger generations. As their immune system develops, contact with certain bacteria helps to boost immune responses. There is no harm dropping a pacifier and putting it right back in their mouth nor is it a danger to let the animal lick them. In fact, the over-protective actions of parents may be more damaging than the germs themselves.
What, if anything, can be said about the five minute rule? Scientists say it is a rule that needs to be ignored. Dropping some bread, butter side down on the floor is not the end of he world. In fact, so long as it is picked up the chances of it being harmful to health are remote. The only time harm can come from eating something that fell on the floor is if the food was exposed to very dangerous pathogens. In modern houses, this is extremely rare. So pick it up, brush it off and it's good to go.
Good old soap and hot water also works perfectly well. The switch to antibacterial sprays and lotions was never really necessary. The use of sanitizers is okay when there is a cold or flu going around, but you really don't want to kill off every germ. In fact, studies have proven that it is better when parents lick off dropped pacifiers or utensils rather than wash them. One study of over 300,00 children, showed that when licking off replaced washing, kids developed less allergies, less asthma and less eczema.
Fearing exposure to germs and bacteria is causing parents to act in ways that are more detrimental than helpful. The use of sanitizers actually prevents your child's natural system from adapting to the germs. In response to normal everyday exposure, they develop more robust immune systems. The defense systems we were born with come from a long chain of evolutionary success. So we need to let our body do its job.
The challenge lies with getting parents on board with this train of thought. Their current fear of germs and over protective nature needs to be reevaluated. The best way to achieve this is to educate parents about how the body works and how well our natural immune systems are.
Children especially can benefit in the long term if they swallow a few germs, inhale some dust or play in the dirt with the dog. It may seem unsanitary and they will definitely be messy, but parents can be assured that internally, their bodies have it covered when it comes to germs.