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Should we keep our infant's environment totally sterile?

Updated on October 18, 2016

Babies and germs, a good mix?

When I was a kid, my mother used to say “well, you have to eat a bucket of dirt and a barrel of bugs before you die so I guess you’ll live if you get dirty” . What she meant was a child will inevitably get dirty, be exposed to germs, and be around others who are sick. You can’t protect them from everything, and you probably shouldn’t.

I already hear everyone all around the internet screaming about this one; however, take a moment to hear me out. When a child is born, they are leaving a relatively sterile environment and entering a world filled with bacteria, viruses, and germs of every form. Their immune system has to be strong enough to quickly build and fight such exposure within their first few hours of life. In fact, an infant’s system has billions of immunological cells within their body so they can fight the different microorganisms that they are so suddenly exposed to in our less than sterile world. (In fact their immune systems are capable of fighting 10,000 germs at one time when they are born and as they develop. Infants currently receive five with each immunization.)

Then, before they even have their first drink of milk (from whatever source) they have already received vaccines from the nurses who attend the newborn babies. Then the milk (breast milk, is of course the best source) will provide another means of fighting the microorganisms that always seem to be floating around no matter how hard we try.

"Hi, I like to invade adults, but young kids terrify me because they can fight me better than adults."
"Hi, I like to invade adults, but young kids terrify me because they can fight me better than adults."

Should it be sterile?

Now, with all of this in mind, should we keep them in as sterile an environment as we can until they are older? I don’t believe so. We should keep them in a clean environment, of course, but I think that today’s society goes too far. For instance: I have seen commercials showing parents of toddlers how to bleach their child’s toys daily to keep them germ free. Cleaners are now available to 'clean the germs away from' the child’s high chair, the refrigerator, the stove, the sink, the floors and even the dishes that the child uses.

I have seen parents panic if their child gets near someone who is coughing or sneezing, even if that person is taking precautions. I have seen doctor’s offices, vet's offices, vision specialists, etc. remove the toys and books from their waiting rooms. I have seen people panic if their child touches a table in a fast food restaurant; and you wouldn’t believe the panic if they fall, sit, or touch the floor in any way! Keep things clean, yes, but is there a point when we have gone overboard? Before you start sending me death threats or something, let me explain why I ask that question. Who knows, you might actually begin to agree with me.

Should children's environments be sterile?

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To start with, let's try to break things down a bit.

The child has been born with an immense immune system capable of taking on 10,000 different types of germs at one sitting. The child needs these germs to help build their immune system so they can fight illness. Once the child begins receiving nourishment, their immune system can begin to build its own vaccines to normal everyday bacteria, viruses, and germs so their body can fight against them. Does this mean the child might get sick? Of course there is always the possibility; in fact it is most likely, and preferable. Mild illness is normal and natural for an infant and toddler. In fact it is necessary if the child is going to grow up strong and healthy.

Imagine the child who has been in a sterile environment all of their life. They turn 18 and go out into the world. Their immune system hasn’t developed any antibodies since infancy because they have been protected from all of the normal germs to which young children are exposed. Their immune system as an adult is possibly capable of fighting germs one by one; but they will be infected by several different types of germs all at once. In fact, the immune system of an adult has about 1/8th of the fighting capability of an infant or toddler. What do you think is going to happen to that new adult? I’d hate to find out, but I’m sure it will be BAD.

To germ or not to germ (sorry, just joking)

Possible Result
slightly ill
very ill
adult-still very ill

Now that I have broken it down a bit, what is next?

Now I am not saying let the child play in the toilet (NO WAY!) and I’m not saying let the child crawl around in stagnant water (UGH!). I’m not saying the child should play with raw chicken (DISGUSTING) and I’m not saying the child should be allowed to eat rotten food (UMPH).

Common sense tells us that we need to keep our children away from the worst of the germs. These are things that even adults can't fight. But to sterilize their beds, their toys, their clothes, their seats, the door knobs they touch, the rugs they walk on, the table where they draw and color, even their food is a bit far out. Let the kid be a kid. Let them get dirty once in awhile, they are washable. Let them be exposed to the small germs that populate the house. It won’t hurt them; in fact it will PROBABLY make them healthier in the process. (And yes, children are usually sicker than adults because they haven't been exposed to as many viruses and germs as an adult has been and so they do not yet have any immunity to them.)

HOW will it make them healthier? Well, when a child is exposed to mild germs and bacteria their body immediately begins producing antibodies to fight them. In the process, just like when they receive a vaccine, they become immune to the germs and bacteria to which they are exposed. Since their immune system is so much stronger than an adult or even a young teenager, they should be exposed to the mild germs as an infant and/or toddler to allow their body to build a defense against them before their immune system slows down its fighting abilities. I don't mean that you should purposely allow your child to play in the trash, I mean don't sanitize every little thing your child might possibly touch!

Children can fight the battle with germs better than adults can! They have a stronger immune system!

The mommy instinct!

I hear that dreaded sentence coming from so many mommy lips: “But then they’ll get sick!” Your child might get sick to some extent, (and probably will since they don't yet have the antibodies to fight the bacteria) but that just means the bacteria, virus, or germ was a strong one and it is taking a bit longer for your child to build up an immunity to it. Will they become deathly ill from mild exposure? NO-NO-NO! Most infants and toddlers are healthy enough to fight off the usual cold, sniffles, ear infections and such that are so common when children are young. There is always the exception, but we all know when our children are generally healthy and when they are not.

Keeping them in a bubble to prevent them from ever getting ill will prevent them from developing an immune system that can fight illnesses when they become adults.
Keeping them in a bubble to prevent them from ever getting ill will prevent them from developing an immune system that can fight illnesses when they become adults.

In between---the battle ground.

There needs to be a happy medium when it comes to our children. We don’t want to shove them into every situation that exposes them to a bacteria, but we don’t want to over-protect them from it either. What we need to do is find that middle point, the one that says “OK, that isn't too much ,” or “That’s not too bad ”. I know it’s hard, but we all have to find that point, for our children’s sake. We want them to be strong, healthy and ready for any challenge, including the challenge of illness.

We really can’t protect our children for their entire lives. We can’t keep them in a bubble inside a well-guarded safe until they die of old age (as mommies all over the world would like to be able to do). We can, however, do our very best for them. One way is to keep them as healthy as possible. Another is to allow their natural defenses to come to the forefront and fight the battles that will need to be fought at one time or another during their lifetime. Why not allow the battle to be fought when your child’s immune system is strong enough to easily win!

The conclusion...........

If you keep your child clean, well fed, and safe from any dangerous environments, but don't carry it too far, your child will grow up to be strong and healthy. A cold now and then is no big deal. A sneeze or three doesn't mean they are to be bedridden for weeks. An ear-infection doesn't mean you have been a neglectful parent. It is not bad to let them make a mud pie or splash in the mud puddle out-back (unless you know there is something harmful like a dead animal in it). So let them get out and get a bit dirty. Let them play. Let them be exposed to a minor germ now and then. Allow your child to be a child so that their natural disease fighting abilities can create those all important antibodies that will keep them illness-free in their later years. Keep the disinfectant for when it is really needed.

© 2011 Cheryl Simonds


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