Let's Get Dirty! Why Being Too Clean Isn't Always Better
As a parent, you want your child to be happy and healthy. You go to great lengths making sure they have a safe environment, attend the right school, and have the best opportunities available to them.
You try to feed your child right and make sure they get enough exercise. But there’s another factor equally as important as good diet and exercise, if not more important. We want to know, are you making sure your child is getting enough bacteria?
Bacteria? Why in the world would we recommend more bacteria?
If you're like most parents, you're running around behind your children cleaning up their toys, washing their sippy cups, and disinfecting their pacifiers. Unless you’re on child number two or beyond, where you just pop that pacifier in your mouth to clean it off – a true parental rite of passage.
But what you may not know, is that bacteria on toys, cups, and pacifiers can be beneficial to your child’s health, helping seed their gut microbiome and making it less likely they develop allergies. 1 Helping build your child’s gut microbiome is critical to their development. Their gut microbiome trains and controls their immune system and is involved in every single biological process their body needs to grow into a healthy adult. 2
You don't have to look far to hear gut health being discussed these days – this is because we are rapidly uncovering how the health and diversity of our gut microbiome is the source of our overall health (or lack thereof). In fact, your child needs the right gut microbes for: 3
A robust immune system
Balanced mood and behavior
Healthy hormonal functions
This is just the tip of the iceberg… We need lots of microbes for a healthy existence, and how clean we’ve become is a serious problem.
The Consequences of Being Too Clean
As a society, we’ve become far too hygienic through:
Moving from farms into cities
Spending 90% of our time indoors
The overuse of chemical disinfectants
Using hand sanitizers constantly
All of these shifts have caused our gut microbiomes to be less diverse and we’ve created superbugs in the process.
Exposing your baby to sufficient microbes is more than just a “good idea” – it’s actually been shown to improve cognitive development. Having a healthy microbiome can influence your child’s anxiety levels, mood, sociability, ability to learn, and develop mentally. 3
On top of the brain boost they receive, a diverse gut microbiome has been shown to decrease the risk of developing allergies. This is an interesting connection when you consider that the prevalence of allergies have risen in over the years. 4
Think about it, our grandparents didn’t have to deal with allergies like we do. Yet, today the prevalence of allergies is so serious, it’s caused schools to implement policies to protect children from inadvertently coming in contact with potentially deadly allergens, such as peanuts.
All in all, for a child’s healthy development they need a diverse microbiome, containing a wide range of microorganisms. So let’s talk about important points for the development of your child’s microbiome and ways you can help.
One quick thing – We are by no means suggesting you shouldn't practice proper hygiene. Obviously, it's important to keep a clean home for the safety of your baby. That being said, this is meant to challenge the overly hygienic mindset that has contributed to a significant drop diversity of the average American gut microbiome.
5 Critical Times for Your Baby’s Gut Microbiome
To know when you can support healthy microbiome development in your baby, it's important to understand how the gut microbiome develops. Newborn babies are born with little to no gut microbiome, which is then inoculated during their first 3-7 years of life through exposure. 5
Here are five important exposure periods and how you can help:
1. In the womb – Up until birth, it's believed that a baby's gut has very few microbes in it. It's often stated that a baby's gut microbiome is born sterile. However, the placenta does have its own microbiome, containing Firmicutes, Tenericutes, Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, and Fusobacteria bacteria. Whether or not these organisms are transferred to the babies’ gut is currently unknown. 6
How to build a better microbiome – It’s good practice to avoid antibiotics whenever possible, especially during pregnancy. If there’s a chance that a babies’ gut does contain a few microbes when in the womb, they are not something we want to get rid of.
2. Vaginal birth vs Cesarean section – During birth, your child gets their first major dose of healthy microbes and the route of delivery plays a huge role in seeding a babies’ gut. Vaginal birth has been shown to significantly increase the diversity of gut microbes, which can be observed until 7 years of age. 4 The climbing rate of cesarean deliveries are believed to be part of the reason our gut microbiomes are lacking in diversity. 7
How to build a better microbiome – If possible, opt for a natural birth over cesarean section. If vaginal birth is not an option or you’ve already had a C-section, there's no need to panic. Delivery via C-section just means you should take necessary steps to ensure your child is exposed to a variety of microbes.
3. Breastfeeding vs. Formula – Breast milk is essential to building your baby's gut microbiome. We used to think that breastmilk was important primarily for its nutrients, but we are now realizing what's most important is the delivery of microbes.
How to build a better microbiome – Breast milk is much better for your baby than formula. Whenever possible, try to use breast milk.
4. Antibiotic use – We know antibiotics wreak havoc on both the good and bad bacteria of the gut. Dysbiosis, or gut imbalance, is much higher in children who have used antibiotics. Dysbiosis has been associated with numerous health conditions, including leaky gut, allergies, nutrient deficiencies, and gastrointestinal disorders.
How to build a better microbiome – We know a sick baby isn’t fun, but antibiotic use should be avoided in children whenever possible.
5. Exposure during early years – This is where the fun stuff comes in! Letting your child play outside, in the dirt, and in new environments exposes them to a variety of microbes. Not only are they enjoying themselves, they are also building a more diverse and robust microbiome and immune system.
An added bonus: When you get down there with them, you're also helping your gut microbiome!
How to build a better microbiome – Throughout your child's life, you can help them build a healthy microbiome by exposing them to many different environments. You can also help build a stronger microbiome by avoiding factors known to decrease diversity in the gut, such as acid suppressing agents, environmental toxins, and psychological stress. 8
Let Your Baby Play in the Dirt!
Not only should you let your baby play in the dirt, but don't be so quick to clean off their toys and overly disinfect everything. Instead of harsh cleaners like bleach, opt for vinegar instead. Also, let them put their hands in their mouth and smear food on their face.
Who knew getting messy was actually good for their health!
We evolved alongside nature and yet we're increasingly separating ourselves from our natural environment. The organisms in dirt and the world around us are critical for building our gut microbiomes and keeping us healthy.
We have to squash the idea that bacteria is bad because it is critical to our wellbeing. Instead, bacteria should hold an important place in our lives – understanding this is necessary to stop further destruction and reverse damage we’ve already done to our guts.
So go ahead, let your kids crawl around in organic dirt and play outside more! Let’s get dirty!
Another important thing to mention – A lot of our farm soil is now seriously contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers, which has caused a decrease in microbe diversity. So, it’s important to ensure your baby isn’t getting into bad dirt. That’s right, there is a difference between good and bad dirt (filled with pesticides and chemicals) – you want the kind full of compost and worms.