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Funny how you weren’t all that worried about germs until the baby arrived. Now bacteria seem to be everywhere! Part of this change of perception is the very messy life of a newborn, full of poop, pee, spit up, and that dampish dirt that gathers in the creases under her chin.

So it is refreshing to read a new study in Pediatrics that suggests licking off a dropped pacifier is not only safe for the baby but actually contributes to the baby’s good health. Children whose parents routinely sucked a pacifier clean were much less likely to develop allergies, including eczema, a common early allergy marker, than were children whose parents boiled the pacifier or just ran it under water.

This is just another indication of what other studies have found before: that when it comes to small children being a little bit germy is better than being squeaky clean. Previous studies have found that children who play outside in the dirt are healthier than kids kept nice and neat and that babies raised with cats are less likely to develop allergies to pet hair than children raised without animals. Clearly, our obsession with germs could use some relaxation.

The one set of germs parents should be wary of are the germs that cause preventable childhood diseases. Babies should get their scheduled vaccinations, since the illnesses they block can cause serious complications with lifelong consequences. In addition, parents should be careful of the quality of water used to make formula and the quality and safety of foods fed to small children. Bacteria lurking in poor hygiene can be deadly. But ordinary, everyday sorts of bugs – the kind found on your kitchen floor, on the sidewalk under the stroller, and on the green grass – not so much.

Did your child just drop his binkie and is wailing to have it back? No worries. Just lick it off!

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

You know that the whole purpose of vaccinations is to trigger a child’s immune system to generate antibodies to prevent future disease. But dirt and allergens serve the same purpose of building immunity against danger.

This means that the home that’s too clean helps the germs!

A study conducted at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that infants exposed to all sorts of icky stuff in the first year of life – pet dander, household bacteria, and even rodent and roach allergens – were actually less likely to later suffer from allergies and asthma than were babies raised in pristine households.

While previous studies have found that inner city kids, exposed to rodents and roaches, have higher levels of The Johns Hopkins study found this surprising bit: exposure to dirty and nastiness in the first year of life is key, no matter when children live. Early exposure actually has a protective effect that is missing if children are first exposed to various bacteria later in childhood.

For example, researchers found that children raised in homes with evident mouse and cat dander and cockroach droppings in the first year of life had lower rates of wheezing at age 3, compared with children not exposed to these allergens soon after birth. Not only that but exposure to all three of these allergens (cat dander, mouse dander, and roach droppings) had the fewest respiratory symptoms of all. In addition, children who grew up in homes with a variety of bacteria were less likely to develop environmental allergies and wheezing at age 3.

Over 40 percent of children who were allergy-free and wheeze-free at age three had grown up in homes rich in a variety of germs. Only 8 percent of three-year-olds with respiratory symptoms had been exposed to household germs in infancy. Children who had no respiratory symptoms at all at age three had grown up in homes with the very highest levels of animal debris and the richest array of bacteria.

What does this mean for you?

The bottom line is that having a baby doesn’t need to change your usual, half-way decent household duties. Not-so-good is actually good enough, even when there’s an infant around. In fact, it’s good enough especially when there’s an infant around!


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.