New parents often inundate themselves with information to ensure that their child is being properly cared for. Our world is a ceaseless source of information, and trying to determine what information will benefit our family and children’s well-being, and what is just being marketed to us for profit, can be an overwhelming and difficult process.
NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro recently conducted an interview with scientist Jack Gilbert, who studies microbial ecosystems at the University of Chicago. After his second child was born, he, like many other second-time parents, adopted a more relaxed approach toward child-rearing. As part of this process, he decided to investigate the science behind germs and the risks they pose to children in the modern era.
Perhaps surprisingly, his research demonstrated that most germ exposure was actually beneficial.
As adults, we naturally want to protect our children from anything that could hurt them, but what we may not realize is that, by trying so hard to protect them, we could actually be hindering their ability to develop a strong immune system. When we rush to wipe their hands and faces after playing outdoors, or block the affectionate licks of our pets, we prevent germs from working their magic.
Gilbert references the way life used to be, explaining that “we would have eaten a lot more fermented foods, which contain bacterial products and bacteria. We would have allowed our children to be exposed to animals and plants and soil on a much more regular basis.” Today we are so careful to ensure anything on them or around them is sterile, when in fact, that lack of exposure and over-sterilization creates a hyper-sensitized immune system:
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.
By allowing your child to play out in the dirt and remain relatively “dirty,” you are increasing their chances of building a strong immune system. One main crime most parents are guilty of, despite the good intentions behind the behaviour, is over-sterilizing their environment. Gilbert specifically mentions how using hot or even warm soapy water is fine for washing your child’s hands, and much healthier than using a hand sanitizer.