Wednesday, October 20, 2010


When I was in boarding school, I had braces. If you've ever had them, you know it's kind of hard sometimes to keep your spit in your mouth when you're talking ... you can't say it without sprayin' it. I managed fine most of the time, but once I was laughing or something and a tiny speck of saliva flew out of my mouth and landed on someone else's arm. She gave a little scream, stood up, and ran out of the room because she was so grossed out.

At that moment, I resolved to myself never to become a germophobe. If I couldn't handle the occasional fleck of spit from a close friend that I also lived with, I'd be very ashamed of myself.

Nowadays microbes always seem to be the bad guys. Luckily for us, most of them are harmless. From the yeasts that raise our bread and ferment our beer to the bacteria that make yogurt and cheese, we rely on them an awful lot. Inside our bodies, they're even more important: our gut bacteria help us digest lactose, raffinose, and others, and they also help produce vitamin K. Many people find they become lactose intolerant or have diarrhea after taking antibiotics -- it's because their gut flora died along with the germ they were trying to kill!

Many people are uncomfortable thinking about the microbes that live in their intestines, on their genitals, or in their mouths. I know I myself read a National Geographic article on eyebrow mites (apparently we all have 'em!) that made me quite queasy. But not only is it impossible to rid ourselves completely of all our parasitic hangers-on, it's not actually desirable. Not only to some of the bacteria have good effects, but even the neutral ones help crowd out germs that may be harmful. For instance, people often suffer from thrush, a fungal infection, after taking antibiotics. The antibiotics cleared the environment (you!) from all the bacteria, leaving the fungus to have a field day! The ecosystem (your body!) is out of balance.

There is some evidence that children who are exposed to too few bacteria may be at higher risk for allergies -- the "over-sterilizing" problem. And the immune system is strengthened by having a few weak germs to tackle before taking on, say, malaria. Keep in mind that humanity survived for thousands of years before anyone even knew what germs were. Luckily we do have some defenses against germs.

Of course, some bacteria (and yeasts and viruses) are harmful. So, how best to protect ourselves from the bad while accepting the good?

Here I consider an article I read recently on the top ten things parents fear compared to the top ten things parents should fear. The number-one thing parents fear is abduction. The number-one danger for children is car accidents. Abduction is extremely rare and unlikely, while car accidents kill thousands of children every year. That suggests that we should stop eying strangers suspiciously and start driving more carefully (and perhaps keeping that car seat rear-facing a little longer).

The same goes for germs. When I'm at school, sometimes I give the baby a pacifier. Sometimes he spits it out onto the floor. Helpful people pick it up, rinse it off, and give it back to me, while suggesting perhaps I might want to boil it before letting the baby have it again. Then they grab the baby's little hand, give it a shake, and kiss his head. The baby's hand goes right into his mouth.

The floor is not a hospitable place for germs. There's nothing good to eat on the floor. It is mopped frequently. People's hands, however, are a wonderful place for germs! That person has almost certainly touched their face (it's almost impossible not to over the course of an hour or two) since they last washed their hands. Of the germs on their hands, one of them is very likely something that likes to infect people -- since that's where it came from. Of the two colds that the baby has had in his life, both have almost certainly come from people touching him.

I read a tip awhile ago suggesting that parents bring several sterilized pacifiers with them when they go out. After all, the writer suggested, what if the baby takes it out of his mouth? And what if, while he's holding the pacifier, someone walks by with streptococcus? And what if they sneeze? And what if a stray germ flies onto the paci before he puts it back into his mouth?

If that happens, a clean, sterilized paci is a much nicer breeding ground for that streptococcus germ than one that's been tumbled about a bit and has little colonies of lactobacillus on it. I'm just saying. In any event, chances are just as good that the streptococcus flies onto baby's face as onto his paci, so he's pretty much gonna get it no matter what you do. No worries, though -- this scenario is pretty unlikely anyway!

Places and things whose germs we don't need to worry about so much:
The floor. We don't wear shoes inside the apartment anyway, so it stays pretty clean. Besides, the kid's been licking the floor since he was born and seems fine so far.
Urine. Did you know that, unless you have a urinary infection, your urine comes out completely sterile? It's nasty and stinky for other reasons, but it isn't germy.
The cat. Her hair is everywhere; there's no avoiding it. Yet it hasn't done us any harm. She's an indoor cat and was tested for diseases transmissible to humans before we got her. There are very few of these -- all other diseases cats get won't pass to humans.
All of the above may have harmful germs, but they probably don't. Sure, I don't lick the cat, but I don't sterilize my hands after touching her either. (I do wash them after cleaning the litterbox and before cooking; don't worry!)

Places and things whose germs we need to worry about more:
People's hands. People germs come from people. Generally from their noses, mouths, and eyes, which most people touch fairly frequently without being aware of it. Kids do this the most. Daycare centers are like germ incubators.
Doorknobs. They're touched frequently. Most human pathogens don't live long on surfaces, but if a doorknob's being touched all the time, its germs are nice and fresh from the source!
The kitchen sink. Did you know most people have more germs on their kitchen sink than their toilet? Makes sense, though: when was the last time you bleached your sink? And yet, it often has food particles for germs to feast upon, and gets touched by raw meat as well, which can carry diseases (especially conventionally produced meat).

My general rule is, things inside this apartment are usually fine, because they've been here for a long time and we're used to their germs. Outside the apartment, everything is a potential germ-carrier, particularly things that are touched often. Paci drops on the grass? No worries. Paci drops in the teachers' lounge sink? Better wash it off. When John gets home from work, I've noticed he always takes the time to wash his hands. He began the habit when working at the bank -- money is one of the germiest things you can find! But it's really a good habit all around.

The one source of germs that could get on the baby that I don't worry about a bit is myself. I am a microbe ecosystem just teeming with germs, and yet I hug, touch, kiss, and snuggle the baby without fear. First of all, he needs my germs. At birth, babies are colonized with some of their mothers' bacteria from the birth canal. Babies born by c-section have been demonstrated to have a less optimal microbe supply -- not no germs, but germs that come from the hospital. Hospitals sterilize a lot, but a baby can pick up germs right out of the air. Most are not harmful, but in a place full of sick people, some definitely are.

That's why I find it silly when I read a well-meaning parenting magazine warning me not to taste my baby's food before giving it to him because I'll give him my "mouth germs." Not only do I need to share my baby's food to check the temperature and show him how to do it, but everyone has mouth germs! The question is, will they be my mouth germs, or some other unknown germs?

As far as pathogenic microbes I may be carrying, luckily this is less of a concern because I nurse him. My milk contains antibodies for everything I'm exposed to -- a good reason to make sure my baby and I are exposed to the same stuff. When people touch my baby, I often just hug them. I want to get the same germs they're giving my baby! And when John came home from Italy with a cold, I made sure I gave him a nice kiss to pick it up. (I didn't get a bit sick! But baby had the sniffles for a week. I like to think it was less severe because of my antibodies.) And of course I kiss my baby a million times a day. If he sucks on a carrot stick and then hands it back, I go ahead and take a bite. It won't hurt me.

So, what do you think? Am I being dangerously cavalier? How do you strike a balance between boiling everything in the house daily and being "unhygenic"?


Melodie said...

I have treated my kids the same way you do and I think it's the way to go. OUr society today is so afraid of germs but I would rather my kids get a little dirty and lick their hands once in awhile than be the mom who Lysols everything to death and only buys anti-bacterial soap. And you're right about the breastfeeding helping to protect our babies. That's one of the things I LURVE about it.

MichelleKendall said...

The other day I went to lunch with my mother. She insisted I use a wipe to clean the table and high chair before I let my son sit in them.

Yes, there could be disgusting germs on that table and high chair. But frankly we're talking about a baby who [when I went to put his bottle on the sink] rolled over to my shoe and started chewing on it.

I am perfectly fine with him gnawing on random objects in his world provided they aren't choking hazards.

That said, I'm a complete nut-job who doesn't let him near people with colds. I have gone so far as to make my husband go to his parents' house when he had a nasty case of bronchitis. First, listening to a baby cry all night wasn't going to help him get better. Second, I didn't want the baby or I to get sick. This was partiularly important since Derek had severe feeding problems.

[Bill ironically asked if he had to come home when he felt better - his mother was spoiling him rotten!]

My mom thinks I'm crazy, but I figure I'd rather focus on isolating the known and obvious sources of dangerous germs and let him get a repertoire of the little stuff.

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