There’s usually always something in my daughter’s mouth. For a long time, it was one of my boobs, but nowadays, it’s usually food or toys or totally gross stuff I can’t believe I let touch her lips. Sometimes it’s her shoe, mouthfuls of sand or a big chunk of railing, step or slide at the playground. Am I a bad parent? Probably. But not because I let her put her mouth on almost anything. That, I can assure you, is for good reason: Germs are healthy. Or at least, they help our bodies decide what’s healthy.
You’re probably thinking that’s my crazy, sleep-deprived mom brain spewing nonsense. But these days, we sleep quite well in our house. My daughter does a full 12-hour stretch most nights, with good solid naps every day too. The insomnia I suffered from for the first 17 months of her life subsided too once I stopped breastfeeding. So I can’t blame a lack of sleep for my pro-germ approach. And it turns out, I’ve even got science in my corner on this one.
Maybe I should backtrack a little. When our daughter was born, we took every precaution to protect her tiny newborn body. Visiting friends and family had to wash their hands a full 20 seconds before touching her. We even kept visits and contact to a minimum for the first few months. One family visitor came when Imogene was just 8 weeks old, and that visit left her sick for days, projectile vomiting on our walls and scaring me like nothing else. Just thinking back to that day fills my stomach with butterflies. But she recovered, as babies do, and has had few issues since. A stuffy nose here, a small cough there. We’ve yet to battle an ear infection, and she hasn’t thrown up since just before her first birthday. She’s a healthy girl. A delightfully happy one too.
As she grew and became more adventurous, it was a constant battle to keep things out of her mouth. From toys and books to some obsession she has with eating her own shoes and the stroller wheels, we finally gave up attempting to stop her (choking hazards aside, of course). We figure it’s mostly a phase and probably somewhat connected to her long teething process. (Those bicuspids have been just sitting at the gum line for 4 months now!)
I recently took her to a press event with me. I was busy talking with Laura, our Editor-in-Chief, while Imogene played with some stuff on the table in front of us. Someone had left a spoon on the table and there was also a small vase filled with rocks, water and a Gerber daisy. All of a sudden, Imogene makes the connection and jams a spoonful of the rocks from the vase right into her mouth. I was able to recover the rocks out of her chipmunk cheeks before she could swallow them. But what about the dirty water she just ingested and the germs from the spoon that had clearly been in someone else’s mouth? I didn’t blink an eye.
Recent research has linked over-cleaning (yes, there can be such a thing, even with kids), particularly with bleach, to an increased risk of developing certain illnesses. And we know now more than ever just how important bacteria are for our gut health. Yes, that should ideally come from fermented foods like kraut and yogurt, and microbes in soil, but my theory is that a little playground equipment doesn’t hurt either. In fact, I think it may help.
And it’s not just that acclimating my daughter to germs will prevent her from catching a serious cold or flu at this age, it’s got much bigger implications. According to Ben Greenfield, author and fitness expert, “when exposure to parasites, bacteria and viruses is limited early in life, children face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma and other autoimmune diseases during adulthood,” he wrote in the Huffington Post. In other words, the more our children are exposed to a variety of germs, the healthier and more resilient their immune systems will be as they age. And there are studies to back it up.
According to Nature, “researchers have identified a mechanism in mice that may explain the role of exposure to microbes in the development of asthma and ulcerative colitis, a common form of inflammatory bowel disease.” And it turns out that restricting our exposure to germs early on can make our immune systems react much more inefficiently over time. Kids especially can end up sicker than they could be from common germs, had they been exposed at an early age.
That doesn’t mean we skip bathing or hand-washing before meals—we want our daughter to have good hygiene skills after all—but we’re not worried if it doesn’t happen all the time. We certainly don’t encourage it, but we do let her eat food off the floor rather than trying to pry half-eaten mushy peas out of her mouth.
I gasp and gag a little every time I see a shoe in her mouth. But you know what? It hasn’t made her sick yet. In fact, aside from her last vomit (which we’re pretty sure was car-sickness), she’s only been sick once before from an illness (from that family member visit). She’s never once had diarrhea or unhealthy looking stools. (It’s not a brag so much as proof that her body is pretty good at compartmentalizing germs rather than letting them run amok and cause damage.)
We much prefer real dirt or the sandbox to shoes and stroller wheels, and do our best to keep her germ exposure reasonably well-managed. But we’re not too concerned either way. It can become an obsession and would take away from the joys of toddler life. I’ve even stopped shielding her away from a person who is coughing or sneezing. And on a recent airplane trip where she fell asleep right before we had to switch planes, I laid her down on the floor at the gate when there weren’t any seats for me to lay her on while we waited. Then of course, once we were back on the plane, she stood up on the seat, smiled sweetly at the passengers seated behind us, and proceeded to lick the headrest.
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Image: Jill Ettinger