By Katie Nickolich, C.R.N.P., Pediatric Alliance — Wexford
To all the germophobes out there, surely your hair is standing up if you watched ABC’s Good Morning America last week and caught the report about the health benefits of allowing kids to “eat dirt.” The story stems from a recent book written by a microbiology professor and an “expert in microbes and immunology” (no further details or credentials supplied), who say that it is actually beneficial to the immune system for kids to be exposed to germs such as those found in dirt, on the kitchen floor, and on pets. They say that exposure to various microbes boosts immunity and in turn protects kids from disease and lowers their risk of developing diabetes, asthma or obesity.
This idea is not entirely new. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2013 concluded it was beneficial to infants if parents cleaned pacifiers with their own saliva:
“Parental sucking of their infant’s pacifier may reduce the risk of allergy development, possibly via immune stimulation by microbes transferred to the infant via the parent’s saliva.”
And of course we know that the immune system works by building a response to an invader (or germ in this case) in the form of antibodies. If the body encounters this invader again, the antibodies are able to recognize it and react to fight it off. This is how immunizations work.
So great! Let’s feed our kids mud pies for dinner and they will be protected from everything! Not so fast… There are limits, and more than just not allowing kids to lick the floor of a subway station as the news story suggests.
For one, we need to think about where we live. Southwestern Pennsylvania is highly industrialized. Recall that your pediatrician asks questions about the age of your home, lead exposure, and radon testing of your house. All of these things could be present in the soil and, if ingested, can be toxic to your child.
Also, cleaning your babies’ pacifier with your own saliva may protect them in some ways but it also can cause harm in the form of cavities. Mary Otto provides the response to the Pediatrics study from the American Dental Association:
“Parents should be aware that bacteria that cause dental decay can be transmitted from adult to child by sharing eating utensils, or by the parent sucking on a baby’s pacifier to clean it” and that the study “does not provide the full picture that adult saliva may also contain bacteria that causes decay.”
They offer an alternative that will achieve the protective effect without an increase in cavity risk and is supplied directly from mom — breast milk. You might have heard the term “Liquid Gold.” That is exactly what it is. No other substance can provide immune protection, nutrition, physical/emotional attachment and value (it’s 100% free) quite like breast milk.
Finally, allowing everyone to touch or play with your newborn is not recommended. Newborns do have protection via antibodies from mom in their first few months of life; however, their immune systems are still very immature and they could get very sick, very quickly. The bottom line — showing off your newborn is perfectly fine; just make sure anyone with symptoms of an illness keeps away until those symptoms are gone.
So what do you do? Put an end to bathing? Or conversely, buy stock in hand sanitizer? Neither. Let kids be kids and have fun. Let them get dirty. Just be aware of where they are playing and clean them off when they are done. Continue to praise good handwashing because while some exposure is good, there are millions (billions, trillions even) of germs out there and no amount of exposure will protect them from them all. Handwashing is still the best at preventing the spread of disease and we should continue to encourage kids to do it often. No one wants to be sick all of the time!