Dear Mr. Dad: We’re a few months away from becoming parents for the first time and we’ve been sanitizing our house to prepare it for our baby. We’ve got antibacterial soaps all over the place—no one’s going to touch our baby with dirty hands! We’re planning to give away our dog—we’ve had him for a long time and he’s very sweet, but we’re afraid that our new baby will develop allergies. What else should we be doing to clean up?
A: Nothing. In fact, you’re already doing too much. The steps you’re taking to keep your baby clean and allergy-free could end up backfiring.
Let’s start with antibacterial soaps. A growing body of research is finding that humans—especially babies—need to be exposed to germs in order to build a healthy immune system. Antibacterial soaps interfere with that process. As a result, their immune systems never get any practice fighting off germs, so when a child finally does come in contact with some serious germs, his or her immune system has no idea what to do.
By killing too many germs, antibacterial soaps may be contributing to the “superbug” problem that’s affecting our healthcare system. Superbugs are microbes that have become resistant to antibiotics. One of the culprits is an ingredient called triclosan, which has been banned in Europe for a number of years. Triclosan is hormone disruptor and has been linked to lower-than-normal testosterone levels in boys.
So get rid of the antibacterial soaps, keep sick people away from the baby, and ask everyone else to wash their hands with regular soap and warm water.
Okay, on to your dog. Only you can decide whether he poses a physical safety risk. But if you’re worried about allergies, keep him around. A number of studies show that very young children who live in a home with a dog are much less likely than their dogless peers to develop allergies and asthma. Interestingly, cats don’t seem to bestow the same benefits.
If you’re wondering how this works, the answer may be no further than your guts, specifically in what’s called the “microbiome”—the bacteria, microbes, fungus, and other organisms that live in or on us. The fact that trillions of microscopic life forms are literally crawling all over us is enough to make you start itching and run for the shower. But don’t. Those little guys (well, some of them) help keep us healthy.
As a new parent, you’re going to spend a lot of time picking up things that your baby has dropped (or thrown). Since you’re worried about germs and cleanliness, you may feel the need to sterilize everything that touches the floor before letting it near your baby. Don’t. In just one example, researchers in Sweden found that children of parents who clean their pacifiers by sucking on them are significantly less likely to develop asthma and eczema, both of which are thought to be caused by allergic reactions. That may sound disgusting to some people, but plenty of us do it (yes, I did it a lot when my kids were little). The researchers believe that sucking their child’s pacifier transfers some of the relatively harmless bacteria from the parent’s mouth to the baby. And from there, it’s straight on to the microbiome.
So does this mean that your family should stop washing your hands, or that you should expose them to every sick child in the neighborhood? Not at all. But it does mean that before you invest in haz-mat suits for everyone who comes into your house you slow down. Eating a little dirt now and then is probably more of a good thing than a bad one.
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