Letting your kid muck around in dirt might just be the best way to keep him healthy and strong

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Do you follow the five-second rule when you drop food? Will you pick up food (or cutlery) from the floor as long if it’s been there for less than 5 seconds?

By the way, you might observe the 5-second rule yourself, you probably would not apply it to your child. In fact, where most parents are concerned, germs of any kind should never be allowed anywhere near their offspring.

However, UK germ experts have found that food is unlikely to pick up harmful bacteria while on the floor momentarily. They also point out that it’s not entirely free of risks either as you still have to take note of the nature of the floor surface and the type of food dropped. Nor should you pick up anything once too much time has passed.

Exposing children to microbes early in life actually helps them establish a stronger, more robust immune system.

Dirt can be good for children, argues Professor Jack Gilbert, a scientist who studies microbial ecosystems. In a new book he co-authored, Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child's Developing Immune System, he says that parents should avoid over-sterilising their children’s environment because exposing them to microbes early in life actually helps establish a stronger, more robust immune system.

Understandably, parents observe high standards of cleanliness, since they fear that dirt contains disease-spreading germs. Young children are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases such as influenza, pneumonia, as well as hand, foot and mouth disease. When kids spend long days together in an enclosed setting, they tend to spread viruses to one another easily.

Little wonder that on outings, you see parents and caregivers religiously bringing along antibacterial wipes, antiseptic hand sanitiser gels and sprays. They use these to ensure that their kids’ faces and hands are always kept clean.

While viruses are generally considered harmful and spread various diseases, most, such as the flu virus, are only transmitted through direct contact with an infected person, explain Drs David Ng and Hugo Van Bever of the National University Hospital‘s Department of Paediatrics.

Bacteria in dirt come in different forms as well. Like viruses, some are harmful and cause diseases. Yet, others are benign such as the good bacteria which inhabit the human gut and skin and form a vital part of the digestive process and immune system.


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The paediatricians add that while a certain degree of cleanliness and hygiene is needed to help maintain children’s well-being, an over-sterilised environment can lead to the rise of certain serious conditions that are no less dangerous than the infectious diseases children may catch from exposure to viruses. These conditions include autoimmune and allergic diseases such as asthma, eczema, food allergy and allergic rhinitis.

This is what the experts advise parents to do:

1. Expose them to dirt

Studies of the hygiene hypothesis show that eating dirt might perhaps be good for health. The theory works on the idea that soil-based organisms, or microorganisms found in soil, contain strong strains of beneficial bacteria that spur the development of a strong immune system, hence reducing rates of allergies or digestive problems. Kids who don’t get enough early exposure to dirt and germs may end up getting sick more easily later on.

Of course, you don’t need to feed your kids dirt (although this is common is some cultures). Just regularly expose them to plants and soil to get the benefits of soil based organisms and the nutrients they contain.

Studies have found that kids who grew up on farms or with pet animals in the house had fewer allergies.

2. Ditch the sanitisers

While letting your children play outdoors freely, remember not to be constantly worried about cleaning them up. Curb the urge to sterilise even when they come back with filthy faces and muddy fingers. Professor Gilbert suggests using just hot or warm soapy water to wash your children’s hands, rather than a hand sanitiser.

3. Hang out with animals

To further increase their chances of building a strong immune system, don’t keep animals away from children. Prof Gilbert says it’s perfectly fine to let a domesticated dog lick your child’s face. Studies have found that kids who grew up on farms or with pet animals in the house had fewer allergies.

4. Take fermented foods and supplements

Fermented food such as miso, tempeh, natto (Japanese fermented soybeans) and kimchi can be an acquired taste, but you should still encourage your child to try them. This is because food which has undergone fermentation has been left to sit and steep until the sugars and carbohydrates become bacteria-boosting agents. You can also consider adding probiotic supplements to your child’s diet, which contains helpful bacteria to keep the gut healthy.

5. Pick the item off the floor and use

What do you do when your child drops his pacifier? Prof Gilbert’s advice is to just pick it up, lick it and pop it back into his mouth. You don’t even need to wash it. Controversial as it sounds, a study he did showed that parents who followed his approach had kids who developed fewer allergies, asthma and eczema and were generally stronger and more robust.

As for the five-second rule, he debunked the myth. Unless the food was dropped onto an area filled with extremely dangerous pathogens, he insists it is safe to eat. Even for children.

Photos: iStock

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