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etc. - a little of this, a little of that - by Oliver Del Signore

Want healthy children? Let your babies get dirty!

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

My daughter-in-law is pregnant with her first child and our first grandchild. She and our son, along with our daughter and her husband, have dinner with us every Thursday.

One of her favorite topics of conversation are her “crazy” friends who go to extraordinary lengths to shelter their children from everything, including germs. These moms and dads all seem to have been infected with severe cases of the “don’ts” — don’t feed your child this or that until she’s three; don’t let him crawl on unsterilized floors; and so on and on and on. Many of these edicts come straight from the children’s pediatricians while other cautions are found in books and on the Internet and are transferred from parent to parent like a plague.

The thing is, most of what passes for “best practices” in child-rearing today flies directly in the face of how generations of children were raised in the past, including my daughter-in-law and me. She thinks it’s all complete lunacy and I agree.

Certainly, neither of us advocate bringing a baby to the communicable diseases ward of a hospital. But I have, for years, and she has, since I’ve known her, pointed out that the huge increase in kids with food and other allergies and with breathing and other problems seems to track pretty consistently with the rise of the over-protectiveness with which new parents are instructed to raise their children.

We both contend that it is early exposure to germs and to a variety of foods that helps set the body’s immune response system and its ability to tolerate different foods.

When I was a kid, nobody in my neighborhood ever even heard of someone who was allergic to peanut butter. Perhaps that’s because most kids got their first taste of it before they even had teeth. Now, peanut butter is banned from many schools thanks to the number of kids who have a nut allergy.

I bring this up today because of a short article I read in today’s newspaper that indicates science is beginning to catch up with common sense when it comes to child-rearing.

Exposure to germs early may be helpful

For years, doctors and researchers have made a seemingly paradoxical observation: as people have grown up in cleaner and more sterile environments, allergies, asthma, and other inflammatory diseases have increased. Now, an international team headed by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has found support for this “hygiene hypothesis’’ and one possible biological explanation that could underlie the intriguing phenomenon.

The researchers used a simple experiment with laboratory mice to strip away many of the complexities that arise when trying to compare differences among human beings who happened to have been reared in different environments. In a paper published online Thursday in the journal Science, they report that exposure early in life to microbes had long-lasting effects on a subset of immune cells, almost as if those experiences were educating the immature immune system so that it protected against disease later on. Exposure as an adult did not have the same effect.

As far as we can tell, it’s a very critical opportunity in the earliest days of life,’’ said Dr. Richard Blumberg, chief of gastroenterology, hepatology, and endoscopy at the Brigham, one of the leaders of the work.

Click Here to read the rest of the article.

I agree with Dr. Blumberg, but I’ll go him one better and say it’s critically important in the first years of life, not just the earliest days.

I let my kids taste almost everything when they were babies. Not spoonfuls, of course, but enough to coat the tip of a finger, a finger I did not sterilize before letting them lick or suck off whatever it was coated with. Maybe we were just lucky, or maybe we did the right thing, but neither of our kids ended up with any food allergies.

How were you raised, food- and germ-wise?

Do you agree or disagree that early exposure helps the body learn to tolerate and fight?

And are or were you a “germ Nazi” or a “let them eat dirt” parent?

19 Responses to “Want healthy children? Let your babies get dirty!”

  1. Stryder Says:

    I’ve been saying this for years! Take vaccination, the idea being to expose the body to a sterile or killed version of a disease so that the body produces antibodies and learns what to protect against. Allowing children to play and get dirty exposes them to various things allowing the body to learn what to protect against. We’ve hurt our children with this overprotective trend. Agreed, we should have some standards but a little dirt and exposure is the way our bodies have evolved to protect ourselves.

  2. Kentucky Kid Says:

    I’d have to agree that immunization against smallpox and a few other really nasty things is likely a good idea, but other than that, as my mom used to say, “a little dirt never hurt anybody”.

    I mean, I likely wouldn’t let an infant wallow in the feed lot “residue”, but . . .


  3. Stacey Davis Says:

    My grandfather-in-law tells the story about the family that worked for his dad and lived in filth yet were sick way less than his own family. He believes it, and so do I. Same thing for our food. Without exposure to little doses of food born illness, we can’t handle big doses. My own grandmother used to keep the fried chicken on the counter for days after ‘Chicken Sunday” and it didn’t kill any of us….though I wonder if it would today.

  4. Steve Matherley Says:

    I remember eating sand when I was little. Also, my mother had us to eating some “adult” food while we were babies. (I know this, because my younger brother is 8 years younger than I am.) We survived just fine. I raised my children the same way, and they also are fine.

  5. Lisa C Says:

    My sister’s kids were always outside as kids. Their dad took care of them and since he had things to do outside, there were there too. They are both the healthiest young adults I know.

  6. James Berry Says:

    I grew up on a farm back in the 60s and can’t imagine not getting dirty while at play, but I’ve seen parents throw a fit if their child gets anything at all on them or their clothes.

  7. Matt, another Says:

    For my kids we struck a happy medium. They were allowed pretty much to play anywhere/anywhen with reasonable supervision. We avoided dead animals, stagnant water in inner city drainages, etc though. They spent plenty of time in the country getting dirty, breathing dust and smoke as well. We also taught them personal hygiene. Wash hands before eating, shower off the dirt before bed time, keep the kitchen clean etc. Both kids were allergic to milk and/or eggs when little but otherwise no food allergies. They also outgrew the milk and egg allergies.

    The only problems we had with germs is when my daughter caught chicken pox and passed it to me when I was in my late 20’s. Damn near killed me. We did follow the old reasonable immunization schedules and passed on a lot of the newer ones that came along.

  8. Don P. Says:

    I heard a blurb on the radio the other day that a lot of our social ills started happening when we began to “kid-proof” our houses instead of “house-proofing” our kids.

    Children need exposure to germs and a lot of other things. Experience is a great teacher.

  9. Janet Says:

    I grew up with my 7 siblings mostly outside, playing army crawling around on the ground and I remember making mud pies with added ingredients, of course! We drank straight from the garden hose, petted our animals (usually a variety of dogs, ducks, sometimes cats) without washing our hands afterward. I also got my first horse when I was 12 and stabbed my foot with a pitchfork while cleaning a stall and never told my parents! I washed it off hours later when I got home, a puncture wound of at least a half inch into the top of my foot with a FILTHY pitchfork and never had an infection from it! We were raised to wash our hands when we came inside from the backyard or anywhere else. We took a bath every night before bed. We ate raw eggs for a snack frequently! None of us has ever had a food born illness of any kind! No peanut allergies although my mom didn’t know what peanut butter was until I was a teen.

    I feel sorry for children nowadays!

  10. Tikk Tok Says:

    This starts with breastfeeding, really. Breastfeeding allows the gut flora to develop normally.

    And a lot of the “conditions” we see children being diagnosed are directly related to not just not coming into contact with normal germs, but with the additives and unnatural stuff that’s in food. There is a link, for example, between gluten and autoimmune diseases; food coloring and ADD/ADHD.

    You can’t be surprised that kids are sick when they are born and exist on chemicals (artificial baby milk) for the first year and then move on to faux “foods.”

    But ya- staying away from dirt doesn’t help, either. Hygiene is important, but so is exposure to the environment………….those people who want their kids to grow up in bubbles make me crazy.

  11. Kyle MacLachlan Says:

    I tend to think of the imune system as a muscle (not in the literal sense, of course), so therefore it stands to reason that, like any other muscle in your body, it needs to be exercised to retain its strength. By disinfecting everything you come in contact with all the time you might be able to keep sickness at bay for quite some time, but sooner or later one germ will get you. Then your imune system, having been idle for so long, will first take longer to get antibodies built up and second might simply not be up to the task at all. The other downside to living in a totally sterilized environment might be that after a while your body just reacts to everything like it is a germ or bacterium, hence the emergence of all the new and more severe allergies, like you pointed out in your post, Oliver.
    My grandfather used to say that one had to eat five pounds of dirt before one could die and that is my philosophy as well. Stay reasonably clean but don’t go crazy with the sanitizing!

  12. Ralph Says:

    My wife and I have five children. When my oldest was born nine years ago all the doctors told us to intorduce new foods on a schedule for allergy reasons. We pretty much ignored them. As soon as our little fellow had teeth enough to chew, we’d let him sample our food whenever he was interested.

    Now, my youngest is two. By the time she came along, the docs had realized the mistake. They told us to feed her whatever we were eating (much as we have always done!) The pediatrician said that they now think the rash of food alergies has been caused by the delay in food introduction. Go figure! Seems our grandmothers really did know best.

  13. Art Says:

    Both my boys have many food allergies. I let them eat dirt and Im not a very good housekeeper. With my eldest we followed all the immunizations (he always had bad reactions to them) until I started to think.

    Youngest sons allergies are much less sever he has only had one immunization (tetnus) at age 5.

    Best time for their skin was when they had chicken pox. They got it the same way I did. When we knew someone that had it we had them share a spoon and cup for an afternoon.

    My brothers and I had measles mumps chicken pox all the regular childhood diseases. I have come to question much of the science funded by the drug companies. As an engineer I trust science and it bothers me there is so little good unbiased science on something so important.

  14. MA mom Says:

    THANK YOU. As a young mother, I’m constantly bombarded by other moms who say things like, “How COULD you vaccinate your child?!” and “We’re on the paleo-diet, and we don’t allow processed foods int our home.” I’ve had a lot of one-time-only “playdates” because our house has cats and dogs, we live surrounded by livestock, encourage our son to play in the dirt, climb trees, and poke around in the woods. Other moms have really freaked out over how we let him “act like an animal.” Let me just say, my 3year-old-son is very well behaved, very clean when the situation calls for it, and is also very healthy, with no food allergies or food aversions. He’s not one of those “pasta with butter or chicken nugget-only eaters, he loves everything, especially if it comes out of our garden. Asparagus, onions, broccoli, tomatoes, squash, peas, kale, strawberrries, apples, you name it. And no, we don’t always wash it before we dive in. Nothing beats grabbing a snack right out of the garden and eating it right then and there. And I’ll be damned if I ever get talked into washing everything and sanitizing my entire house and carrying Purell with me everywhere I go. My mom always said, “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.” I changed it to “before you’re one.” The sooner we stop over-sterilizing ourselves and allowing our bodies to do their job, the healthier and happier we’ll all be. Or at least my family will. Everyone else can do what they want. We’ll be outside rolling in filth :)

  15. kevin m Says:

    I have been telling my friends and family with small children this for years. I have a buddy who told me that back in the late 70’s he went to work for the sanitation dept. and everyone who worked there would get dog-sick for a month or so. After they got better they would rarely ever even get a cold. I and my brothers would regularly either fall or push each other into a local retention pond that the county health dept. told our mom had 57(!) known diseases and no one ever got sick. The immune system, use it or lose it.

  16. WolfSong Says:

    Interesting. So the theory here is that kids have asthma, food allergies and health issues due to parents over protecting them from germs. Well, since everyone else is weighing in with their anecdotal evidence, I’ll toss in my 2 cents worth…

    I have always been a “play in the mud” kinda girl, tomboy growing up on the farm, gardener in the city as an adult. Never have I shied away from getting dirty while working or playing. My daughter is 11. She was born with eczema. Still, she played on the floor with the dog and the cats. She ate dog food-because it was on the floor and that’s what kids do-she played in the grass and the dirt and made mud pies, and ate her fair share of those muds pies too! At no time was she ever discouraged from getting dirty while playing. Heck, she ate her first earth worm at 11 months old!

    At 18 months, she had her first taste of peanut butter…and threw up for 4 hours. Thinking it was simply too rich for her I waited another month before trying again. That time her throat swelled up, her face turned blue and we called 911. Lo and behold, she had a food allergy. One that could kill her.

    Fast forward to her 4th birthday, she had a cold, and was having trouble sleeping because of coughing. One morning, she woke up and couldn’t draw any air in at all. She was trying to play, but was turning blue, and while I was getting dressed to take her in, she passed out. Another ambulance ride, 2 days in the ER, a week in the hospital, and we learned she had asthma, and nearly died from the attack.

    So, what I take from this is, sometimes shit happens. Sometimes, you can do everything your grandmama taught you to do with kids, and they still might have allergies or asthma or eczema. What us parents with kids who do have those conditions could use is less of people pointing and saying “If you let them get dirty as babies this wouldn’t have happened”. Honestly, I’m sorry other people’s kids can’t take peanut butter sandwiches to school for lunch, but at the same time, I’m glad! As much as your kids have the right to eat PB and J’s, my kid has the right to go to school, and come home every day.

  17. Leonard Barnes Says:

    It sounds to me like we have all just discovered “Evolution.” Our body’s immune system learns from our environment and although there are exceptions, as a rule this is how we evolve. Make a sterile environment and then expect the immune system to react will cause this process of fighting for life to diminish. This is not always the case but for the most part dirt and germs teach most of us how to survive. In the case of the exception, taking care to be protective and aware is common sense. From Wolfsong, we know it is important to always be aware of problems and do what has to be done to protect anyone showing a problem.

  18. Shelly Says:

    Thank you, WolfSong. My husband and I were “let them eat dirt” kind of parents, too, until our infant son’s eczema and reflux forced us to put aside our egos and risk ridicule to do what was best for him. Life has a way of humbling us.

  19. Gregabob Says:

    I call those hand sanitizers at supermarket entrances ‘bacteria strengtheners’. “Kills 99.9% of germs” while making that 1/10 of 1% stronger…..sounds like a recipe for getting sicker to me! I work on trucks for a living, and am exposed daily to microbes from all over the U.S. I rarely get sick, and it seems neither do the other guys at work. Daily challenging of the immune system makes it stronger, just like any other exercise. I wash up with soap before prepping grub, and practice good bathroom sanitation, I just don’t go overboard with sanitizers or boiling my hands with bleach.



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