When you think of kids, cleanliness may not be the first thing that comes to mind. After all, these are the creatures that rejoice in slobbery dog kisses straight on the mouth, find bath time overrated and, let’s be honest, rarely miss the chance to engage in a good booger-eating session. The list of gross things that children will engage in goes on, partly because they haven’t yet learned the social norms that prize cleanliness and hygiene above all, and partly because when you’re three years old, rubbing mud in your face is just a lot of fun.
As parents, we often feel compelled to perform damage control, one pocket-sized hand sanitizer at a time. “Don’t touch that!”, “Spit that out!” and “Wash your hands,” have become the rallying cries for parents trying to protect their protégés from germs and social ostracization in the modern world. But what if a little dirt isn’t quite as bad for us as we think it is? What if some germs are actually good for us? And what if excessive cleanliness and antibiotics use is a bigger problem in the developed world than the fact that your kid stuck a finger in his mouth after going to the petting zoo?
In Are Your Kids Too Clean? Germs vs. Playing Outside, I argue that while improved sanitation, vaccines, antibiotics and pasteurization have saved millions of lives in the past century, we’ve made our children’s – and our own – lives a little too sanitary. I know that many other parents share the feeling that our children need less Chlorox and more soil microbes in their lives. The problem is that we don’t always know how to promote the good germs that keep us healthy, while at the same time protecting ourselves against harmful microbes that cause diseases.
Enter Let them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World by B. Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta (2016, Algonquin Books). Not only does this book prove how our intestinal health has become collateral damage in the war against microbes, it also shows us how to limit the casualties by nourishing our microbiota, i.e. the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our intestines. In the process, the authors argue, we can help protect our children against chronic illnesses like inflammatory bowel diseases, allergies, autoimmune diseases, autism, diabetes, and even obesity.
Researchers are just beginning to understand the many and complex ways our microbiota affect our and our children’s health, and this book doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But it does offer some interesting findings:
- C-sections and antibiotics use during pregnancy or labor may contribute to a higher risk of obesity, allergies and asthma for the child later in life. To give the baby a diverse microbiota after birth, some hospitals will offer to “seed” it by swabbing the inside of the baby’s mouth with secretions from the mother’s vagina.
- Breastmilk shapes the bacterial eco system of a baby’s gut and strengthens his or her immune system. Don’t think that feeding your baby formula is an inferior form of parenting, but if you do, consider complementing it with pediatric probiotics to make it more similar to breast milk.
- If a pacifier falls on the ground while you’re out hiking, it’s perfectly fine to remove the visible dirt and give it back to your child, or just “clean” it by putting it in your own mouth first. In fact, this may help strengthen the child’s immune system.
- Children should be outside often, and be allowed to go barefoot and get dirty. While hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent common infections, it doesn’t necessarily have to follow immediately after playing outdoors or with other children. When washing, avoid antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers – plain old soap and water does the same job without killing beneficial microbes.
- Letting your dog interact closely with your kids – yes, even licking them – can decrease their risk of developing allergies and asthma.
- Sandboxes have a higher concentration of microbes than other playground features, but the risk of contracting a disease from one is low, especially if you follow hygienic practices like hand washing afterwards.
So what about the question posed in the title of this post? Obviously you shouldn’t shove a bucket of dirt in a newborn’s mouth but, according to the authors, there’s no reason to freak out if your child happens to sample a little mud. “Do let your kid be a kid and interact with their world, and develop as kids have for the past million years. Let them eat dirt!” is their common sense advice.
Disclosure: I received a copy of Let Them Eat Dirt in order to facilitate this review. All opinions are my own.