My older sister spent a lot of time going to the doctor when she was a baby. One time, the doctor, possibly frustrated after seeing this otherwise perfectly healthy child over and over again for the common cold, looked at my mother and said, “You have to let this baby get dirty.” I imagine my freshly bathed sister sitting there in an immaculately laundered outfit, looking as if her baby feet had never once touched the Earth.
My mom was horrified. She had wanted a baby very badly, and once she got one, she was determined to do everything right. Didn’t doing everything right include keeping your baby safe from germs? Bathing them every day? Keeping the dirt from under their fingernails? Well, it turns out that the doctor who saw my sister in the late 1960s knew exactly what he was talking about. WebMD says that the research consistently shows that germs can be good, especially for infants. In fact, babies who are exposed to germs are less likely to get asthma and allergies as adults.
Despite her reluctance, my mom listened to the doctor, because more than anything, she didn’t want her baby to get sick anymore. She slowly began to let my sister play on the floor and in the dirt, and eventually, my sister’s constant bombardment with ailments began to go away. By the time I came around, I pretty much spent my entire childhood rolling around on the ground outside with the dogs and the bugs and the snakes and the frogs.
Our kids need to get dirty.
In fact, Thom McDade, PhD, associate professor and director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University says that “the young immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can learn, adapt, and regulate itself.” That’s like saying that our immune systems need to be challenged in life, or they figure they can go and retire in Florida and play shuffleboard and leave us coughing and wheezing away.
We evolved over time interacting daily and intimately with microbes and bacteria, and not only are they around us, but they live inside of us too. In fact, here is a wacky fact that might make you feel completely gross: Our bodies are inhabited by 3 to 10 times as many nonhuman cells as human cells. This includes things like viruses, fungi, and yes, bacteria. I don’t know about you, but fungi?! WTF, bodies.
It makes sense that, since our bodies are actually made up of so much bacteria, we also don’t constantly try to get rid of all the bacteria around us. Yes, we also need to stop using all the damn antibacterial stuff. Studies are showing that, not only do antibacterial soaps lack any benefits over using regular old soap and water, but that they could be harmful in that they potentially increase the risk of drug-resistance.
Superbugs = not good.
Our kids need to get plucked right down into the natural world and get it all over them. They need to catch worms and splash in mud puddles and smear all sorts of stuff on their faces when we aren’t looking. We need to stop hovering and worrying about them staying clean or staining their shirt. They don’t need baths every day. They just need healthy food, lots of exercise, and dirt.
They probably even need to lick random stuff and eat their boogers, but I just don’t want to think about any of that.