Your Kid Doesn't Need a Bath Every Night

Screen capture. "Babies" movie

A little dirt doesn’t hurt, but too much cleanliness can. Here are some reasons to pare down the regular bath routine.

There’s a wonderful documentary called “Babies” that came out in 2010. It follows the lives of four babies during their first year of life. They live in Mongolia, San Francisco, Tokyo, and rural Namibia, which leads to great variation in parenting styles.

One of the most striking differences is parental preoccupation with hygiene, or lack thereof. Obsession with germ avoidance and/or eradication has become so standard here in North America that it’s always surprising to see how it hardly matters in other places. The babies in Mongolia and Namibia are mostly left to their own devices, allowed to crawl through mud and water, in and around livestock, and suck on dirty sticks and fingers. The babies in Tokyo and San Francisco are constantly monitored and cleaned, and spend most of their time indoors.

I can’t help but think the Namibian and Mongolian models seem a lot more natural; and if the recent research into “the hidden universe of organisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) teeming throughout our glands, hair follicles and epidermis” is accurate, then it’s also much healthier. Keeping kids spotlessly clean may do more damage than good.

It’s said that “a little dirt doesn’t hurt,” but countless North American parents are hooked on the nightly bath routine. As fun and soothing as it may be, there are costs to this daily process of decontamination.

The repeated use of soap on skin that’s not actually dirty can destroy the microflora that’s supposed to flourish on our bodies and keep us healthy. Rob Dunn, a biology professor and author of “The Wild Life of Our Bodies,” explains that the medical community has worked relentlessly, and with good intentions, to remove as many microbes from our bodies as possible, but that the overuse of antibiotics, antiseptics, antihelminthics, and pesticides can do more harm than good. Lauren Wright cites Dunn in the Washington Post:

“Overly clean living can be bad for our immune systems, which need certain microbes and gut bacteria to function properly and to keep us healthy from the more dangerous pathogens.”

There is increased exposure to toxic chemicals in most conventional baby soaps and shampoos, as well as the scented creams and oils that get slathered on post-bath. Most of those are not safe for kids and contain the “Dirty Dozen” cosmetic chemicals that the David Suzuki Foundation urges consumers to avoid.

Keep in mind: If you wouldn’t put it in your kid’s mouth, then don’t put it on their skin, where it still gets absorbed into the bloodstream. Remember, too, that moisturizers are only necessary when the skin’s natural oils have been stripped away by harsh chemicals in most soaps.

Cutting down on baths can also save water. Americans use twice the world average – 2,842 cubic meters annually, which is more than an Olympic-sized swimming pool for every single person. Compare that the global average of 1,385 cubic meters per capita.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends bathing babies (0-12 months) no more than 3 times a week, particularly if soap is being used. The American Academy of Dermatology says that 6- to 11-year-olds need to bathe only once or twice a week, “when they get dirty, such as playing in the mud; after being in a pool, ocean, or other body of water; when they get sweaty or have body odor.”

Newborns need it even less, since their skin is covered with a natural skin protectant called vernix. I remember the midwives telling me to wait at least a week to bathe my newborn sons, and even then not to use soap unless absolutely necessary.

So instead of running a bath for your kid tonight, snuggle up to read an extra story as a way of signaling sleep time. Your child’s long-term health (and the planet) will thank you for it.