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We were outside working in our garden, and our 8-month-old daughter was playing in the grass a few feet away. I turned to check on her and she smiled her big, toothless smile… black and oozing a mouth full of soil. Horrified I immediately sent Daddy over to fish it out, as best he could, and soon thereafter I asked the Almighty Google to tell me more about dirt. Specifically, children eating dirt. What I found surprised me.
"The over sanitation of childhood might actually be doing children more harm than good," says Jenny McGruther of Nourished Kitchen. "You see, just as muscles need training to become strong, the immune system requires training to effectively work. Without that training, things go awry and the immune system can kick into overdrive — attacking the body itself instead of invading pathogens."
In fact, a child living in a more "sanitary" home has a higher risk of developing diseases of the immune system, "particularly inflammatory bowel disease, Type 1 diabetes, asthma and even multiple sclerosis."
The hygiene hypothesis
Products like Clorox and Dial and Antibacterial-Everything are marketed specifically to parents worried about protecting their kids. But with so many kids being diagnosed with allergies of all kinds, one has to question whether these germ-killers are really helping. That's what the hygiene hypothesis is all about. Are we too clean?
Let them eat dirt
Many studies of the hygiene hypothesis (which blames our too-sterile environment for many immune issues) are leading researchers to conclude that, "organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with 'dirt' spur the development of a healthy immune system," according to The New York Times. "Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma."
Not just dirt — filth in general
One study in particular, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, states that, "When researchers studied the effects of cumulative exposure to both bacteria and mouse, cockroach and cat allergens, they noticed another striking difference. Children free of wheezing and allergies at age 3 had grown up with the highest levels of household allergens and were the most likely to live in houses with the richest array of bacterial species."
Step away from the Purell
It may very well be that we are sanitizing our children's allergies into existence. As much as the thought may horrify you, your kids need dirt. They need to play in dirt. They need to play in dirt and then have a picnic without washing their hands first. They need to teach their immune systems what is not dangerous. But the protective benefits of exposing your kids to these allergens and bacteria are greatest in their first year of life, so get them outside early and often. Let your tot chew on blades of grass (assuming you don't have chemicals on your lawn) and suck her muddy little fingers. Relax and let her learn.
A final note
Of course, there are plenty of parents who use disinfectants for good reason. For certain children dealing with medical issues already, a nearly-sterile environment is worth the risk. So if you see some mom in the mall doling out squirts of Purell like Halloween candy, don't worry. Your kid can pick up plenty of germs and bacteria elsewhere.