From the moment we bring our little ones home from the hospital, germs and dirt seem to be our enemies.
Wash those hands, sanitise that pacifier, spray down the counter with antibacterial cleanser, rinse, and repeat for the rest of their childhood…
“Yikes! Look out for that mud puddle, Johnny. We don’t want you muddy when we get home from school”.
“Honey, did you use the bleach spray for the kitchen counter, bath and toilet?”
We think we’re keeping them safe and clean, but could we actually be harming their health by keeping them too clean?
New research actually says yes.
We are keeping our children too clean and increasing their risk of illness.
I’m the first parent to admit that having an infant or toddler in the home turns me into a germ and dirt fighting monster. I want them clean, healthy, and safe – because that’s what I believe to be best for them. Now, however, we’re learning that being too clean can actually mean less healthy.
Here are 6 things you need to know about kids and dirt:
#1: Dirt Contains Necessary Microbes For Our Overall Health
In recent years we’ve begun to realise just how important our microbiome is for overall health. The more diverse our microbiome, the healthier we are likely to be.
One teaspoon of dirt contains more microbes than there are people on the planet! We don’t need to start feeding our children bowls of dirt to improve their health, but we do need to let go of our obsession with cleanliness, if we want them to have optimal health.
Dr Maya Shetreat-Klein, author of Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child, advocates for a lifestyle that exposes children to dirt. It involves playing outside, making mud pies, and really just being a kid, without their mothers’ worries about cleanliness!
#2: Kids Exposed To Bleach Actually Have An Increased Risk Of Infection
During the cold and flu season, if you’re anything like me, you might be tempted to bathe in sanitiser and drown your house in bleach. After all, no one wants to deal with the flu, and these things prevent flu, right?
Wrong. Research shows that children exposed to bleach have more infections, including a 20% increased risk of contracting the flu virus. The very steps we take to prevent infection might actually be increasing our children’s risk of contracting infection.
This new research was published in the journal Occupational Environmental Medicine.
The study was observational and therefore can’t prove causation, but it is enough to make you think about the potential risks of regularly exposing children to bleach. In addition to an increased risk of contracting the flu, there was a 35% increased risk of recurrent tonsillitis, and an 18% increased risk of overall recurrent infection among children exposed to bleach in their home and school environments.
#3: Children Raised On Farms Are Less Likely To Have Allergies And Asthma
Children raised on farms are likely to spend more time outside in the soil than typical suburban kids. However, that isn’t the only reason they have a lower risk of allergies and asthma, according to research.
As mentioned above, a diverse microbiome is essential for good health. Soil found on farms – soil that’s frequently worked, and home to a variety of animals and crops – is likely to contain many more diverse microbes. This means children exposed to this soil will probably have a more diverse microbiome, protecting them from autoimmune issues, as well as from infection.
Research doesn’t suggest dirt exposure will treat an infection, an allergy, or asthma problems, but early exposure could prevent young children from developing these conditions.
#4: What We Eat Matters
Not only could over exposure to bleach and other cleaning products have an impact on our microbiome, and our health, common pesticides might also be affecting our well being.
We spray foods with pesticides, and then thoroughly wash off every speck of dirt from them before eating. Then we possibly overcook or process the food. The combined effect of all this means we’re exposed to little to no microbiomes from the rich soil in which our food grows.
Growing organic food in your home garden, and allowing kids simply to eat from the plants, can be a great way to expose them to healthy microbes. When foods are grown using pesticides, fertilisers, and when they pass through many, many hands before finally arriving in your kitchen, you obviously need to wash them thoroughly. Having access to food simply grown, in rich soil, with minimal handling, provides an opportunity to add a bit of diversity to your microbiome.
#5: If You Have Allergies, Avoid The Triggers
As mentioned above, exposure to dirt, unfortunately, won’t treat already developed health issues. ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is a very true statement.
If you or your child has food sensitivities or allergies, for optimal health it’s important to avoid the triggers. Medications,such as steroids, antihistamines, and so on, are available and should be used when genuinely necessary. For many people, however, avoidance is the best medicine.
Often when allergy triggers are eliminated from the diet, there is no longer any need for daily medications to treat eczema, hay fever symptoms, gastric upset and, in some cases, even asthma.
If you or your older children have a history of allergies and sensitivities, and if you plan to have more children, you might be able to reduce their risk of developing similar conditions.
According to research, as well as allowing children some exposure to dirt and not over sanitising everything, exposure to probiotics in utero can also help reduce their risk of eczema.
You can read more about preventing eczema in BellyBelly’s article How Pregnant Mothers Can Help Prevent Infant Eczema.
#6: Being Healthier Doesn’t Require Drastic Change
Packing up, moving to a farm, and losing the bleach might help improve your health. For most people, though, there’s no need for drastic measures.
Many small changes can improve your health, and your children’s health. During pregnancy, eat a well balanced diet that includes probiotics. Sanitise less, unless really necessary, or you are advised otherwise by your physician, because you have a medically fragile child, or a preemie. Let your littlies jump in the puddles and make mud pies. All these could help improve health.
Dietary changes, such as eliminating any triggers for food sensitivities and allergies, and access to homegrown produce might take a little more planning. Even so, they aren’t drastic measures for improving health.
Spend a bit more time outside in the soil, or in the forest. It’s another simple lifestyle change that can improve exposure to microbes, as well as increase your intake of natural vitamin D.
Certainly some people find it helpful to make more drastic changes, such as becoming a vegan, but in the absence of health issues directly affected by animal products, most people can have a well-balanced diet, without removing whole food groups.