A Little Dirt Is Good for Babies


baby with dog
My dog, my baby and his toys all co-exist
Before I even go down this dirty road, I'd like to make clear that I shower every day, I wash my hands regularly, and my babies get a bath or washcloth cleaning every night before bed. Okay, with that out of the way, here goes ...

Last week, I was part of a group email exchange between a few new Moms talking about the best way to wash their babies' hands in public, to clean their little ones' toys, and comparing the best antibacterial wipes. As the emails kept coming, it became clear that these women were really keen on keeping any and all germs away from their 4-month-old babies. My first thought was, "Oh, maybe I should be more diligent?" My next thought was, "Wait, am I a gross, disgusting person?" Finally, I realized, "Okay, maybe these women need to relax a bit." Of course, no one wants their baby to get sick, but the reality is that exposing babies to dirt and germs is actually better for them in the long run. Really ...

It's called the "hygiene hypothesis," and the scientific theory is that our obsession with cleanliness is actually responsible for the increase in allergies, asthma and other immunological disorders over the last decade or so. It's why children in third world countries don't have anywhere near the number of allergies as those in industrialized cultures. Obviously, genetics plays a huge role as well, but many pediatric allergists believe that a baby exposed to germs builds up stronger immunities, which will ultimately make him or her even healthier.

Of course, I still wash my hands and get my babies vaccinated and I certainly wouldn't knowingly bring them around anyone who is sick. But, my babies don't live in a bubble -- we like to get out and about. I can't stop a bug from flying into their stroller when we're walking around the neighborhood. I can't keep a sniffling woman from getting into the elevator with us. I'm not going to deny my baby one of my fingers to hold because I haven't had a chance to wash it since opening the restaurant door. If I let myself get worked up about every little gross thing they've potentially been exposed to, I would go totally bonkers.

Plus, I've got a black Lab who shakes her hair out and licks her fur all over the house, including the nursery. I often find dog hairs on my babies' faces, on their lips, and a couple of times have found a stray hair in their bottles after it's already too late. (Those with a dog get it -- those without pets are probably throwing up in their mouths a little.) Early on, I figured out that I had two choices: freak out and give away the dog, or just accept that this is how my family lives and how my babies are going to live, so they might as well get used to it. So far, so good (knock on wood).

Still, just to be sure I wasn't in fact just a total, grimy pig of a Mom, I asked my pediatrician if I needed to be washing my babies' hands in public or if I needed to clean the toys that they put in their mouths all of the time. He agreed that no, unless their hands or their toys have fallen in something truly disgusting, the dirt and germs really weren't going to hurt them and in fact, would ultimately make them heartier.

So, there you have it. Of course, many parents feel more comfortable sterilizing their babies' world while others feel it's better for them to be exposed to some ick. Obviously, I fall into the latter category, but I'm not judging those who do otherwise ... as long as they don't judge me. No, I don't think any parent should bring their babies around people who are sick, but I do feel that over-sanitizing may do more harm than good. And that's lucky for me because I have a lot more free time to play and snuggle and roll a ball on the floor with my babies, without constantly having to fetch an organic handi wipe.

Are you concerned about keeping germs away from your babies? Or do you believe babies are better off when they're exposed to everyday germs?

baby health


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miche... micheledo

I'm a terrible mom.  Even with my first, if his pacifier fell on the floor, I just gave it back to him (unless it fell in something gross or looked gross). 

mithrila mithrila

My mother told me when I got pregnant a truth about clean babies that she had learned from my older brother: You can sterilize all you want, but you turn around for a moment and they'll be eating out of the dog dish. That was the moment, thanks to my brother, that she realized that she couldn't protect any of her kids from every little germ.

PonyC... PonyChaser

Another adage to add to the pile, "god made dirt, and dirt don't hurt". Around here, we eat our carrots right out of the ground (ok, we rinse the dirt off with the hose) and our tomatoes right off the vine (they're ours, and they're not fertilized with anything chemical. We drink 'hose water'. We play in sand, and dirt, and we eat snow and icicles. All that joyful, dirty, messy stuff that I did when I was a kid, and, in my opinion, is essential for an awesome childhood.

We've had a dog or a cat, or both, since my son was born. Shortly after, we got a bird, as well. We play host to ponies, donkies, sheep and goats during the summers, which we willingly hand-feed, pet, brush, ride, play with, and love. He has no allergies, and I firmly believe that it's because I'm one of those who shuns anti-bacterial soap like it's a bottle of plague. (We have septic. I'm paranoid that the anti-bacterial soaps will inhibit the necessary bacteria in our tank, and then, oh dear God, the mess that we'll have.) I have no environmental allergies, either.

On the other hand, my husband was raised by a germ-phobic. He is allergic to dust, has hay fever like crazy, and spent his entire childhood medicated from one season to the next for every kind of environmental allergy you can think of. Since living our "dirty" life, he has, I believe, built up a tolerance for many of those things he was allergic to. Or maybe his body changed. Not scientific at all, but enough proof for me.

PonyC... PonyChaser

Oh, and I TOTALLY get the dog-hair dilemma. We've always had golden retrievers. Multiply your lab by ten, with the fur factor. If I wanted to truly keep up with the hair during shed season? I'd be vacuuming daily. As it is now, I do it weekly, and could build a small chihuahua with the fur.

nonmember avatar anon

I also believe that germs are good for babies and children. Yes of course there are limits, but overall I think it builds a healthier immune system. One time my boy was playing with a ball and putting it in his mouth to make it squeak. I was playing with him for some time before I realized it was the dogs ball. I was so grossed out and felt bad that I didn't catch on. He was fine and that was a good lesson to learn.

Gypsy... GypsyMa76

I agree with all of the above! lol :)

Andrea Byrd Plate

I agree with all of the above.  My daughter was born a few weeks early, and I was a bit of a germ warrior for her first few months of life on the advise of her doctor, but after that I let it slide.  I didn't attack her toys with a can of Lysol, I didn't sterilize the floors before I let her play on them, I let my dog (and her shedding fur) around the kiddo, and I just generally didn't keep her in a bubble.  The result?  She's now twenty months old and has only been sick twice.  In fact, when I brought her in to the doctor last week to get an upper respiratory/ear infection looked at and mentioned it was her first one, he commented that she must have a strong immune system.  While part of that may be genetics, I believe the other part is due to her not being kept away from everyday germs.

fave82 fave82

Love this! It's nice to see not every Mom is a totaly spaz because I've encountered a lot of them!! My baby gets a bath every other day and wiped down with a washcloth on the nights that she doesn't take a bath.. at the very least her hands, face and neck get wiped. And it's not so much that I'm scared of germs as it is I think it probably feels better to her to get all cleaned up before bed.

kkey75 kkey75

I totally agree. If other parents want to spend all their time trying to get rid of germs, more power to them. However, I never did and still don't. My 3 1/2 yo is rarely if ever sick and I truly believe it is because I allowed her to be around germs so she built a good immune system. When she was 2 weeks old, her pediatrician told me to make sure I took her out and about so she could be exposed to the environment and she's done great ever since. (and we do wash hands regularly, just not with anti-bacterial stuff constantly.)

3gift... 3gifts.from.god

I feel the same exact way, and treat my kids the same way. Except that I did not give my baby a full bath every night. The pediatrition also said that they don't need a bath every night unless they have a serious blowout, have been playing in dirt, or something like that.

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