Let Them Eat Dirt (Or at Least Play in It)

According to Dr. Angela Mattke early exposure to their environment full of germs, bacteria and viruses is not a bad thing. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Just ask any parent kneeling before a new baby. Suddenly, the world and all its filthy surfaces — not to mention its filthy humans — seem teeming with danger. To protect their precious progeny, many parents discover a clean gene they didn't know they had. A baby arrives, and the guy who used to live by the five-second rule begins offering hand-washing tutorials and doling out hand sanitizer. But according to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, a little dirt never hurts. And it turns out, it just may help — especially those five and under.

"Early exposure to their environment full of germs, bacteria and viruses is not a bad thing," Angela Mattke, M.D., tells the paper. Dr. Mattke, a pediatrician at Mayo Clinic Children's Center in Rochester, notes that parents "are very concerned, almost preoccupied, with their child touching a surface that is not clean." But it turns out that early exposure to the dirtier stuff in life — things like "bacteria and other microbes" — can actually be "crucial to our health." That's because "beneficial microbiota helps build immunity in babies and children, and has a role in preventing allergies, asthma, obesity and other noninfectious conditions," according to the paper.

Dr. Mattke and other experts quoted in the story offer guidance for parents wondering "how much dirty is just right." They advocate a "common sense" approach to keeping clean. For example, a child probably doesn't need to wash his or her hands after playing in the dirt or grass. But if the child was sharing toys with a playmate who had a runny nose or fever, then it's time to wash up. And to the relief of children everywhere, a daily bath isn't a necessity. Instead, Dr. Mattke says to "wash your baby when he or she is dirty." And how about that five-second rule? It all depends on where a dropped item lands. Dr. Mattke "likely won't sterilize a pacifier dropped in the house but isn't going to let a child eat any food that might drop in a public space," according to the Tribune.

And that's not just a doctor’s advice. It's also wisdom from a mom. Dr. Mattke, a mother of two young boys, draws from both her professional and personal experience when talking to her patients. She also answers parents' questions on Periscope during #AskTheMayoMom events like the one we wrote about last fall. In that segment, she shared what she feels is the most important thing you can do to protect your child's health. "Get your child's immunizations up to date," she says in the video. "It's the best way to keep them healthy." Then let them go play in the dirt.

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