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As your child grows older, he will start exploring more of the world around him and this will include getting dirty and messy – whether it be eating a piece of chocolate he dropped on the floor, or trying to chew on the dirty blanket! Consequently, most parents are quite obsessive about keeping their little one’s environment clean as far as possible. It seems like the right thing to do – but experts disagree! Is our tendency to keep kids overly clean harming them in some way?
As parents, we try our best to keep our children from getting too close to dirt and mud. It’s a reasonable habit too, especially with the rainy season spreading the flu that can harm our children’s development and possibly leave them with a weak immune system for life. However, today’s parents might be ‘oversanitizing’ their kids or keeping them ‘too clean!’
Yes! According to science, keeping your child’s environment ‘dirt-free’ might actually be hurting his immune system!
Why Is Dirt Good For Your Kids?
Chicago-based scientist Dr. Jack Gilbert who studies microbial ecosystems got a lot of advice as a new parent about how to look after his child properly. But when it came to his second child, Dr. Gilbert dug deeper to understand the risks involved in letting your child coming in contact with germs. As it turns out, we might be doing more harm than good!
He stated of his findings, “It turned out that most of the exposures were actually beneficial. So that dirty pacifier that fell on the floor — if you just stick it in your mouth and lick it, and then pop it back in little Tommy’s mouth, it’s actually going to stimulate their immune system. Their immune system’s going to become stronger because of it.”
Simply put, this means that exposure to dirt helps boost the immune system of children and protects them against diseases as they grow up!
What Will Happen If Your Child Gets No Exposure to Dirt/Germs?
With the understanding that microbes and germs cause diseases that can be fatal, humans have successfully helped their children live and thrive by keeping them in a germ – free environment. This includes removing unpasteurized milk from children’s diet, sanitizing a pregnant woman’s environment, etc. Today, most kids grow up indoors with a controlled environment that is sanitized to extreme limits, and this keeps the exposure of your child to different germs at bay.
Adding to that, modern human practices which include C-sections (as the baby is not exposed to the ‘good’ bacteria in the birth canal), bottle-feeding babies and sleeping far away from the mother have also reduced exposure to good bacteria that your child needs. And while these measures have greatly reduced infant and child mortality rate, they have also increased some risks:
1. More Risk of Immune-System-Based Diseases
Just as stimulating your baby’s brain helps in cognitive development, your baby’s immune system too needs to be exposed to everyday germs so that it learns to adapt and regulate itself. No exposure to dirt/germs consequently results in improper development of your child’s immune system and puts them at the risk of developing immune-system-based diseases. In fact, certain antimicrobial products and cleaning products contain ingredients that can inadvertently set off a reaction that can result in the body developing immune-system-based diseases like:
- Asthma and lung problems: Caused mostly by lung damaging compounds in cleaning products
- Allergies: the preservative Methylisothiazolinone (MI), used in baby wipes and other toilet/feminine products is actually an allergen
Dr. Gilbert adds: “In the past, we would have eaten a lot more fermented foods, which contain bacteria. We would have allowed our children to be exposed to animals and plants and soil on a much more regular basis. Now we live indoors. We sterilize our surfaces. Their immune systems then become hyper-sensitized.”
2. More Risk of Allergies and Asthma in Children
In addition to the risk of immune-based diseases, we are also increasing the risk of allergies in our kids by over-sanitising them and their surroundings.
3. More Risk of Iron Deficiency
Breast milk lacks high levels of iron to protect the baby’s digestive system since pathogens like E.Coli need iron to thrive. However, once your baby is 6 months old he spends a good amount of time on ground interacting with dirt which is good source of iron and other minerals. If you keep your baby away from dirt, it can result in increased risk of iron deficiency in your baby
Watch the video: “Let Them Eat Dirt – Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World” to know more.
So, what should you allow your child to do to ensure his immune system develops properly? After all, you can’t let your kid be exposed to infection-causing bacteria!
The key is to find balance – we’ve got some do’s and don’ts listed for you that will be of help in development of immunity as well as avoiding infection:
1. Actually Expose Your Child To Mud And Dirt
Encourage exposure to dirt by allowing your baby to crawl on the ground in your house and occasionally even outside, letting him walk barefoot in the dirt in your local park and even allow some playtime in the mud regularly. This encourages small amounts of bacteria to be picked up and get transferred to their digestive systems to strengthen their immune systems.
2. Use Hand Sanitizers In Moderation
Skip chasing your kids around with hand sanitizers and antiseptic wipes all the time. It isn’t necessary to wash and sanitize everything. While sanitizer is a substitute for hand washing, it is in no way a replacement and should only be used when necessary.
3. Opt For Antibiotics When Absolutely Necessary
Carefully consider and consult your physician about the use of antibiotics. It is not necessary to depend on them for every episode of fever and is extremely unhealthy for the immune system’s ability to fight infections in the long run. However, that doesn’t mean that you should not resort to them at all. Remember, antibiotics are a way to deal with the symptoms better not a cure for any fever or disease.
4. The ‘Five-second Rule’ Isn’t True, But It Doesn’t Mean It Is Unhealthy
The ‘five-second rule’ (where if you drop any sort of food and pick it up in 5 seconds its germ-free) doesn’t hold true. It takes just milliseconds for pathogens to attach themselves to food. However, your home is probably ‘hypersantitized’ with only everyday germs present in an effort to keep your baby’s environment germ-free. So unless you drop food in an environment you’re not sure about, it’s perfectly alright to follow the five second rule.
Additionally, picking up a pacifier off the ground and licking it before giving it to your baby, instead of washing it, is healthier. In fact, as per a recent study, children of parents who licked the pacifier instead of washing them developed lesser allergies.
5. Ensure Your Child Has a Colourful Diet!
IIt’s hard to get your kid to follow a healthy diet, but it is important to ensure a diet rich in fibre and low in sugar for your child. It supports not only your child’s immunity development, but also his overall development. A range of colourful fruits and vegetables as part of the diet will benefit your child immensely as they contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals. You can try tricks like disguising vegetables to make your kid eat them without a lot of fuss.
Additionally, certain foods like eggs and lentils are good for boosting immunity in kids, while probiotic foods like yogurt ensure that your child gets a dose of ‘good’ bacteria for better immunity.
So now that you have an idea of just how much your child needs his ‘dose’ of germs and dirt, its time you let go of the reins and let the messy fun begin!