Scientist explains in new book how germs can be advantageous for kids and how over-sterilizing is hurting them.
If your kid drops a pacifier on the ground, give it a lick and stick it right back in her mouth. There’s no need to rush to a sink and scrub with soapy water. This advice comes from Dr. Jack Gilbert, a scientist at the University of Chicago who studies microbial ecosystems and recently published a book called Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for your Child’s Developing Immune System.
While trying to navigate the sea of advice on how to keep his own child safe and healthy, Gilbert realized there was very little discussion about what germs do to kids, just a vague paranoia about them. He decided to find out what’s actually known about the risks involved when modern-day children come in contact with germs and discovered, according to NPR, that “most of the exposures were actually beneficial.”
In “Dirt is Good,” Gilbert challenges parents to go against common practice in a few key ways. Why? Because our kids are sick and it’s a direct result of the world in which they’re raised:
“We sterilize our surfaces. Their immune systems then become hyper-sensitized. You have these little soldier cells in your body called neutrophils, and when they spend too long going around looking for something to do, they become grumpy and pro-inflammatory. And so when they finally see something that's foreign, like a piece of pollen, they become explosively inflammatory. They go crazy. That's what triggers asthma and eczema and often times, food allergies.”
So, what should a parent do?
First, let kids get dirty and stay dirty. There’s no need to attack kids with sanitary wipes the minute they come indoors, or fret about not letting their hands come into contact with their faces. Nor should kids be kept away from animals. I guess my son’s obsession with kissing his pet chickens isn’t so bad after all. (See this article on why your kid doesn’t need a bath.)
Second, ditch the hand sanitizer, which Gilbert calls “usually bad.” His opinion aligns with that of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states that hot soapy water is just as effective as antibacterial washes and definitely safer because it does not contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.
Third, stuff falling on the ground isn’t the end of the world. Whether it’s a pacifier or a piece of food, there’s no risk to putting it back in your kid’s mouth unless it’s been dropped in an area with a high risk of extremely dangerous pathogens, which Gilbert says is pretty much impossible in a modern American home. In fact:
“A study of over 300,000 children showed that parents who licked the pacifier and put it back in [had] kids [who] developed less allergies, less asthma, less eczema.”
Finally, get your kid eating a wide range of colorful vegetables. It may seem impossible, but persist and insist. A healthy diet is a crucial foundation for life and no time is better than the present to create those habits. Having trouble? Nothing cures picky eating quite so effectively as hunger and a good hike!