Lots of people, when they become parents, become obssessed with keeping everything clean. They worry constantly about dirt and germs.
They do whatever they can to clean and sanitize and sterilise everything in their baby’s world.
But is this really the best thing to do?
I’ve always felt that a little bit of dirt is good for children. That they need to be exposed to germs and bacteria to be able to build an effective immune system.
To my mind, it’s like peanuts.
Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this!
When I was pregnant with Rhys, the general advice was still to avoid eating peanuts and peanut products. It was thought that this would help prevent peanut allergies in the baby.
But, I wasn’t convinced that this was right.
My gut feeling on it was that, surely, it’s better to expose the baby to small amounts of things like peanuts. To me it made more sense that a child would be more likely to react to something that they’d never been exposed to at all.
So I did some research and it turned out that, at the time, the UK was pretty much the only place in the world to advise women to avoid peanuts during pregnancy and yet we had one of the highest rates of peanut allergies.
Women in other countries were happily enjoying their peanut butter on toast every morning and, if anything, doing so seemed to reduce the chance of their baby having a nut allergy.
So I made a choice to keep eating my peanut butter too. And not long after that the advice here changed to say that it was ok to do so.
Because exposing babies to allergens early on makes it more likely they’ll build up a tolerance to it, which makes it less likely they’ll develop an allergy to it.
And I think of dirt and germs in a similar way.
If we expose our babies to these things, then they’ll build up a tolerance to it. Their immune systems will develop to be stronger and more resistant to bugs.
And a new book has been released that supports my beliefs.
‘Let them eat dirt‘ is a really fascinating book on the benefits of exposing our children to dirt and microbes.
It was written by B. Brett Finlay, PHD and Marie-Claire Arrieta, PHD and is all about this idea that our current obsession with keeping things clean and sterile is potentially harmful to our children.
Which makes me feel better about the absolutely non-sterile state of my home!
I remember when Rhys was a baby, and I was still worrying about sterilising his bottles, and his dummy. My husband made the excellent point that he was crawling round on his hands and knees all day, and then putting his fingers in his mouth. And his toys were often on the floor, and then in his mouth.
And he seemed to be doing fine!
So I relaxed a bit after that point.
And kept in mind that any germs and bacteria he did pick up would most likely be doing good things to build up his immune system.
This whole idea of sterilising bottles is actually addressed in the book:
“The American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends sterilizing bottles used for babies of any age. If the water at home is safe enough to drink, it is also safe enough to use to clean bottle and nipples”
They also mention an interesting study that was conducted at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. The study found that children raised in homes that washed dishes by hand (rather than in a dishwasher) were less likely to develop ezcema by the time they reached school age. Which suggests that “a less-efficient dishwashing method promotes more exposure to microbes early in life, which has been shown to protect children from allergies and asthma”.
And as for toys, the book’s authors suggest that they only need to be cleaned when they’re visibly dirty, or if they’ve been played with by a child that’s poorly. And plain old soap and water will do too, no need to break out the dettol!
So, if that’s the case with toys, which are more often than not left lying around on the floor, then is it ok to pick a dummy up off the floor and give it back to your baby?
You might judge me for this, but my response to a dropped dummy was always to just quickly pop it in my mouth to ‘clean’ it before giving it back.
But you often see parents grabbing a pack of wipes out of the changing bag to clean a dropped dummy. Well, you can even buy little containers that keep them sterilised on the go!
According to ‘let them eat dirt’ though, my more relaxed approach might be for the best.
“A study by the Swedish research group suggests that the best way to clean a pacifier that has been dropped is to put it in your own mouth first. They found that the sixty-five babies raised by parents that cleaned their pacifiers by mouth had a significantly lower risk of developing allergies at 18 and 36 months of age”
I honestly find this whole area of research fascinating.
A lot of the studies need to be replicated on a larger scale, but the findings definitely point towards it being a good thing for our babies and children to be exposed to microbes and bacteria.
So maybe we all need to relax a little bit.
Obviously we need to use some common sense and do what we can to stop diseases from spreading, and to be wary of germs from food that’s past its best. And the authors aren’t saying we should actually be encouraging our children to eat dirt.
But maybe we need to cut down on the constant disinfecting and sterilising.
I’m not saying we should live in a complete mess. I think we all feel better when our homes are clean and tidy. But, lets not get carried away! Our homes don’t need to be sterile. We don’t need to get rid of every last germ and microbe.
What we need to do is let our children be children.
Let them go out and play in the mud.
Let them explore the world around them.
Let them come home covered in dirt and grass stains, with grubby faces and mud under their fingernails.
I’ll leave you with a great final quote from the book:
“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!”
I was given a copy of ‘let them eat dirt’ to review, but all words and opinions are my own apart from those indicated by quote marks.