Why Some Germs are Good for Babies

As parents, we may cringe at the idea of our babies eating food off the floor, sticking pet toys in their mouths or chewing on their own shoes.  It’s counter-intuitive to everything we’ve been taught about hygiene and sanitation.  But researchers now believe that exposure to a moderate amount of germs is good for babies.

Why Some Germs are Good for BabiesOur world is filled with germs.  Some of them are extremely harmful and can cause serious illness – Ebola for example. However the majority of germs are a normal part of our everyday lives and are usually not catastrophic to our health.  Now, new research has emerged showing that exposure to germs, ranging from dirt and pet dander to feces and insects, is helpful to the immune development of babies.  The theory is known as the “hygiene hypothesis.”

The basic principle of the hygiene hypothesis is that, like our brains need mental stimulation and our bodies need physical stimulation to grow and develop, so do our immune systems.  The best way to achieve immune system enrichment is through exposure to germs.  As the body learns to defend itself against foreign substances, it becomes stronger.  When an environment is too clean, children develop hypersensitive immune systems.

Within the first year of life, babies solidify most of their immune system development.  So exposure to germs during this initial period is most important in developing this natural protective shield for later in life.  In a recent press release from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Dr. Robert Wood, chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology for the hospital, said, “…Not only are many of our immune responses shaped in the first year of life, but also that certain bacteria and allergens play an important role in stimulating and training the immune system to behave a certain way.”

Germs including bacteria, viruses, allergens and various other microbes can help boost the immune system and reduce risk of asthma, allergies, respiratory problems and many other diseases.  Because the immune system helps prevent inflammation, it is also responsible for staving off many diseases and conditions caused or initiated by inflammation.  These include heart disease, diabetes, cancer and brain degenerative diseases.

In past centuries, bodies have thrived despite a variety of germs, especially a host of bacteria that lives in the gut and aid in digestion and all metabolic processes.  As our world has become more sanitary, many of these bacterial strains are dying and we are losing their benefits.  One of the worst culprits of killing off helpful bacteria is antibiotics.  When people, and especially babies, are given too many courses of antibiotics that fight off germs, their immune systems don’t have the opportunity to grow and learn to protect themselves.  This leads to weakened immunity and the list of already mentioned health problems.

Why Some Germs are Good for BabiesIn addition to a healthy dose of germs, breastfeeding is one of the best ways you can build your baby’s immune system.  The nutrients of breast milk are perfectly formulated for a baby’s developing body, with hundreds of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and carbohydrates that your baby needs to grow and thrive.  Additionally, the skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby, a one-of-a-kind bonding experience, assists immune maturity to make your baby stronger and healthier for her lifetime.

While these new reports on the importance of germs for babies are enlightening, parents should also act responsibly and remember to find a balance of germ exposure.  Perhaps we don’t have to scrub our floors twice a day and wash hands after every sneeze, but we also don’t want our kids rolling around in animal feces either.  Everything in moderation, even germs.