Mmmm, Worms and Muck! Is Dirt Good For Your Baby?
This week, the New York Times says that dirt and worms are actually good for your baby.
Babies love putting horrible stuff in their mouths. Rediscovered ancient cheerios dropped weeks ago, fluff from under the bed, and grot they find in the grass at the park. I know a couple of babies who love to eat sand, and the contents of the dog’s bowl is irresistible to just about every crawler.
Scientists and moms alike have wondered why on earth babies do this. It’s hazardous, for one – small objects can choke a baby. And things from the ground are covered in germs and dirt and dog drool and other unpleasant substances that make babies sick.
Or do they?
Being worried about small objects choking a baby is a very real and valid concern, us moms have to always be vigilant about what baby is putting in her mouth.
But dirt, dogfood and Jurassic crackers? That could be a different story. A growing number of doctors are advocating letting your child play in the dirt, and taste it too.
A newborn baby’s immune system mostly doesn’t know how to deal with germs in the real world. It has to learn what to do with bacteria and viruses that the baby may encounter. When a baby sucks something she finds on the floor, she’s ingesting a small amount of bacteria and viruses and her infant immune system gets to practice responding to the bacteria or virus. It’s critical that this happens, so when baby is exposed to a large amount of that bacteria/virus, her immune system knows what to do and she won’t get sick, or won’t get as sick.
Some scientists theorize that today’s clean environment is responsible for kids with perma-stuffy noses, allergies and eczema, and serious immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease, which are all on the rise. Babies just aren’t exposed to as many germs as they need to train their immune systems.
It’s well known that children who live on farms and are exposed to all kinds of germs get sick less often than children who live in nice clean houses in the suburbs. And I’m sure you know a parent who has a spic-and-span home but a baby who is always missing playdates because he is sick.
You probably have heard that theory already, and maybe you quoted it to yourself when you decided to watch Gossip Girl instead of wash the kitchen floor. And you probably did the right thing.
And now scientists from the University of Iowa have upped the ick factor. Not only do they encourage babies tasting muck from the sandbox, they theorize that intestinal worms are responsible for training infant immune systems. It’s becoming much less common for someone to have worms in America these days, and the researchers lament the demise of the worms. Apparently, worms play a very important role in learning immune response, and the scientists have successfully treated and improved symptoms of patients with the immune disease multiple sclerosis by infecting them with intestinal worms.
When you say “worms”, most people think of tape worms, the kind that give you an itchy bum. And while some types of worms cause serious complications, there are also many other species of worms that live in human gastrointestinal tracts, such as the whipworm used in the MS study, which don’t cause symptoms in low numbers, and are basically harmless in healthy well-nourished people.
It ties in with the theory about the kids raised on farms who don’t get sick so much. They are much more likely to have contracted worms from the farm animals.
I can’t get my head around letting my kid get worms. I love that someone has thought up this theory and it’s even more wild that it seems to improve patients with MS and Crohn’s disease. But I still don’t think I could willfully expose my son to worms. I think I’ll wait for more evidence.
But dirt? I am in agreement that a little dirt isn’t bad for you. In my house everyone washes their hands before meals, before and after preparing food, and after diaper changes, but otherwise my household is generally clean but in no way sterile. So when I see my son picking between his toes then eating the gerber puffs that have been under the couch for a month, I don’t care.