A healthy baby needs a little dirt: How a clean house can impact your baby's health

There’s a saying that everyone has to eat a peck of dirt in their life, and as more and more medical reports come out, it seems that eating that peck of dirt may be important to your overall health. Photo: Mish Bradley

SILVER SPRING, Md, July 13, 2012 – There’s a saying that everyone has to eat a peck of dirt in their life, and as more and more medical reports come out, it seems that eating that peck of dirt may be important to your overall health.

Today, we have anti-bacterial dish soap and hand soap that boast the ability to kill 99.99% of all bacteria.  We have hand sanitizer that we can squirt into our hands where ever we are. We have sanitizing wipes that come individually wrapped to carry in a bag or pocket or in larger containers for easy household access.  There are sprays to clean anything and everything.

Could all of our attempts to remove the germs from our house actually be making our children sicker?

a study published in Pediatrics reveals that children with a dog or cat have stronger immune systems than those who grow up in pet-free homes. Photo Dogperson3d. Click to enlarge.

A study published in Pediatrics on July 9, 2012 shows that children who had dogs had a decreased rate of respiratory infection and needed fewer courses of antibiotics than children who didn’t have dogs or cats. The article concluded that contact with animals that spend time outside can help protect the respiratory system during the first year of life by exposing children to germs that are necessary to build a strong immune system.

The authors of the study go on to say that animal contact in the first year of life can actually provide an increased resistance to respiratory infections well into adulthood.

But that’s not the only study that suggests that exposure to all those “dirty” things might actually be important for developing young immune systems.  In the June 2012 issue, The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology published a study that demonstrated that Amish children who grew up on farms in northern Indiana had significantly lower rate of allergies than non-farm populations (5.2% for Indiana Amish populations, 11.3% for non-farm Swiss populations).  This is called “the farm-effect” and has been documented in farm populations across North America and Europe, with a 50% reduction in allergic occurrence in farm children. 

In the United States, the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found 54.3% of the study population to have evidence of allergic sensitization to at least one thing.

A recent study shows that the Amish have a lower incidence of asthma and allergies than non-farm populations. Photo by KiwiDeaPi. Click to enlarge.

Add to that the results of a study American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine published in 2007 that shows the use of cleaning sprays 4 times a week caused an increase in asthma and you can start to see the problem. Sprays that were included in the increase in asthma were glass-cleaning, furniture and air freshening sprays. How many of these do you use a week?

In fact, the idea that we need a little dirt in our lives isn’t new. The Food and Drug Administration says that the “hygiene hypothesis” suggests that the important period of immune system development in the first year of life is being hijacked by our “extremely clean household environments.”

Letting your home get a little dirty and letting your baby be exposed to germs can seem a little counterintuitive after you’ve been told to be washing your hands around your newborn and to keep them away from sick individuals. However, the only way our immune system can build antibodies to fight every day diseases is to be exposed to the bacteria and viruses that cause these infections.  The “hygiene hypothesis” says that our hyper-clean, over-sanitized environments lead to inadequate exposure to immune-building opportunities, which can cause higher incidences in asthma and allergy. 

Doctors say that babies help to build their own immune system by introducing potential pathogens to their system when they mouth objects. Every time they put something in their mouth they are exposing themselves to whatever micro-organisms live on its surface.  The studies that show children with contact to animals, whether they are pets or farm animals, consider the fact that these animals bring with them bacteria and viruses from outside and usually provide a low enough exposure to allow a child to build up an immunity without becoming seriously ill.

Somehow we’ve become a culture obsessed with clean. Shine and polish, and the smell of citrus or pine have become hallmarks of an appropriately clean home. But Dr. Mary Ruebush, author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, says to wash in moderation.  She suggests using only plain soap and water and washing your hands after using the bathroom, after changing a diaper, before meals and before and after handling food, but unless your hands are visibly dirty, she urges you to not to over wash. 

Aside from denying our immune systems the blueprints for the antibodies that microorganisms can provide, using anti-microbial and sanitizing products constantly also help create “super bugs.” Sure, the label says they kill 99% of all bacteria, but have you ever thought about that other 1%. Those bugs that are strong enough to resist your disinfecting attempts are the ones that survive to multiply, and since they are already resistant to your cleaning supplies they are harder to get rid of.

They are also more likely to make you sick, and if you have a weaker immune system because you weren’t exposed to those weaker bacteria that you killed with disinfectant, then you are more likely to get sicker. The same thing applies to your children, and the younger the person, the less developed their immune system.

While no one is suggesting we return to unfiltered water and outhouses, the medical community is realizing that a little dirt is actually healthy.  The best advice right now is clean your house but don’t go overboard. Let you baby touch the cat and the dog and walk around barefoot.  Allow your children to play in the dirt.

Next time you see your baby putting something in their mouth that hasn’t been washed first, don’t panic.  Try to forget the motherhood mantra of, “Don’t touch that. It’s dirty.” Just remember, a little dirt is good for everyone in the long run.

Follow Brighid on Twitter at @BrighidMoret and receive updates when new columns post on Facebook. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.


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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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