Germs, Ants and Keeping Kids HealthySeptember 14th, 2012 | Posted by in Child development | Health | Parenting
My neighbor Jennifer showed me her chapped and raw hands a few weeks ago and asked me: “Is there anything that won’t tear them apart as much as washing and sanitizer? I am trying to make sure that the baby won’t catch any nasty bugs, but it is so hard to try to stay clean, especially with his 2 year-old brother around…”
What Jennifer is asking is on the minds of many parents as our children go back to school, pre-school, daycare or to whichever giant culture dish of grubby hands and snotty noses we bring our children. The difference is that Jennifer is asking me, a neonatologist, to answer her question.
I am a specialized type of pediatrician who works in an intensive care unit, where the most vulnerable babies are fighting for their lives and where deadly infection from the most common bacteria and viruses is a constant threat. I wash my hands when I enter a room, when I leave it, before I put on gloves and when I take them off, before I touch a baby and before I shake hands with their parent and after that once more. We can’t wear rings with stones, long nails, neckties or even white coats because they all slog around germs. So at work, infection control is ALWAYS on my mind…
But then, I am also the mom of two active and curious boys. So at home, infection control (or any kind of control for that matter) is only SOMETIMES on my mind. For a brief moment, I think about germs, when I get into my car as children help themselves to an astounding buffet of snack crumbs in the car seats. And, as a yard and pet owner, I am aware of the germs that surround me, along with the dirt, grass and fur. For example, it was very difficult NOT to yell about bacteria and parasites when my oldest experimented in the dirt and I saw him put something in his mouth, after I DID yell at the dog to stop licking me after drinking in the toilet. I calmly explained to my son that I wasn’t upset about the dirt, but that ants are living (!) things and that the ones covered in chocolate on the Internet were cooked before people ate them.
Somewhere between the hospital and the yard, I try to balance being a good parent and a good pediatrician, by weighing both sides of the Great Germ War. Exposing children with a functioning immune system to a certain amount of non-dreadful germs helps build a strong, diverse array of antibodies and immune cells. Some infections are less dangerous and less debilitating when experienced as a child than as an adult. Studies have shown that children raised in antiseptic environments can have more problems with eczema and asthma.
Some of the best weapons in our war against germs are vaccines, because they prime children’s immune systems, a little bit like the grubby hands that go into little mouths.
So you might think that I answered Jennifer that she was overdoing it by sanitizing her hands so much and that germs are healthy. But I didn’t.
This is why: maybe you remember what it is like to feel like Jennifer, with a brand new baby at home, tired out of your mind and worried about how fragile your tiny one appears? I haven’t forgotten. So when I answered, I tried to be the parent, the scientist and the neonatologist all at once and I said to Jennifer: “Cut back on the alcohol-based sanitizer, use moisturizer after you wash your hands, don’t scrub too often and try not to worry so much. You are a great mom, and your baby will be fine, even if he catches something from his big brother.”
By Dr. Nathalie Maitre, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Neonatology