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.
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.
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?