As moms go, I’m not the cleanest in the world. There’s usually not more than a day’s worth of food on the table and floors, and if something in the trash is stinky, I take it out. My kids wash their hands after using the restroom (and they’re good at it; my sister once worked as an Infection Control nurse, so we know how to wash hands!), they sneeze into their sleeves and they wash up before meals if they’ve touched any of our animals. But, I have to confess, they don’t always wash up before they eat.
Imagine my joy, then, when I learned at a recent conference that hand-washing isn’t always the answer. I actually heard a woman (a researcher and a mom) say that kids are kept too clean with all the antibacterial “stuff” we put on them. Their immune systems aren’t challenged by the weaker bugs, so they don’t have the strength to fight off the stronger ones, leading to more childhood illness. She actually recommended that kids who have been playing in the dirt outside should not wash their hands before one meal a day. In other words, she said let them eat a little dirt with dinner!
And, recent studies support the theory. In fact, WebMD posted an article on the Hygiene Hypothesis, which suggests “that when exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses is limited early in life, children face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases during adulthood.”
In college, I learned that newborn foals mouth everything near them while they’re investigating their world. The professor explained that it’s a dual-purpose instinct: the young horses learn about the things that surround them, but they also ingest prebiotics that develop into the intestinal flora that helps them digest food when they begin eating. They take in the little bugs, drink mom’s milk, and their immune systems respond appropriately so they can grow up to be healthy as…well, a horse.
This perfect design, I realized, doesn’t just apply to horses; human babies mouth everything, too, so I figured it must work the same way for us. With that in mind, I’ve never been a clean freak and I’ve been committed to breastfeeding. I’m not sure a baby’s body could react to its environment without breastmilk backing up his fledgling immune system, so this “dirty kid” system might not work for babies on formula.
For my kids, though, my house is free of antibacterial anything. We wash when gross or stinky, but otherwise we say, “God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt.”