Parents and caretakers today have an aversion to letting kids get dirty, in part because of the notion that children may get sick from germs they pick up. Children spend half as much time outside as they did only twenty years ago; school age kids ages spend a daily average of 7 hours and a half hours using entertainment media or screen time and only 6 percent of 9–13-year-olds go outside by themselves.
But for millions of years, children have grown up constantly exposed to the microbes around them. Consider a child’s normal behavior from the start: babies are in direct contact with maternal skin while breastfeeding (skin is full of microbes), they are constantly putting their hands, feet, and every imaginable object in their mouths. Crawlers and early walkers have their hands all over the floor, and then in their mouths. Older kids love digging in the dirt, picking up worms, rolling on the ground, catching frogs and snakes, etc. Children rarely hesitate to lick anything or anyone. As would be expected, children also suffer more infections than adults. This natural behavior is likely designed to encounter more microbes. Their vacuum-like behavior ensures that they taste the microbial world and subsequently train their immune system to react to it accordingly. However, we have changed how we live, striving to eliminate as much as possible this microbial exposure. Recent research shows that this is detrimental for our children’s health, and there is a direct link between lacking diverse microbes in a child’s “gut” to potential chronic conditions like asthma, allergies, obesity, diabetes, and even healthy brain development.
As scientists, we’ve studied microbes that cause diseases for many years, and we understand how important it is for children to be exposed to a diverse array of bacteria. But as parents, knowing all that we know, it still hasn’t been easy to make decisions regarding microbial exposure. Here are a few habits, with many more detailed in Let Them Eat Dirt, that we should all encourage in children to promote good gut-health.
- Let them get dirty: While in nature, allow your children to touch anything they want (within reason), including dirt, mud, trees, plants, insects, etc. Bring a bucket, some water, and a shovel the next time you’re at a park or on a hike—it takes only minutes before most of them start making mud pies or decide to give themselves (and you!) a mud facial. If the dirt gets in their mouths, don’t freak out; they’ll soon realize that dirt doesn’t taste all that good and likely won’t develop a habit for it. Most kids have this innate desire to get dirty, but in their modern lives this needs to be nurtured. Do your child a favor and encourage her to play with dirt!
- Allow them to play with pets: Let your dog safely play and closely interact with your baby or small child. It’s a good idea to take the dog to the vet right before the baby arrives, just to make sure your pooch is in good health. Recent research shows that letting your dog lick or be close to your baby is likely to decrease his or her risk of developing allergies and asthma, with the added benefit of providing companionship and protection, and teaching your child to be comfortable around animals. Besides, they do a great job of tracking in outside microbes!
- Wash with regular soap and toss the antibacterial gels: After outdoor playtime, washing a child’s hands with antibacterial soap will undo all that great microbe exposure. Don’t act on the urge to clean your little ones off right after they get dirty, either; let them stay dirty for as long as the play session lasts or until it’s time to eat or after the go to the bathroom.
- Feed their microbes: The vast majority of the microbes in the gut are very far down, in the large intestine. They need food to get to them. Eating simple white sugar, white flour, and refined foods won’t reach the microbes, as it is easily absorbed higher up in the stomach and small intestine. Foods high in fiber, nuts, legumes, and vegetables all are perfect microbe foods, being broken down by them in the large intestine. Think of mealtime as a time to feed both your child AND their microbes. Bring on more microbes to your child’s gut by giving them fermented foods frequently, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, etc.
- Be wise with antibiotics. Antibiotics are miracle cures for bacterial infections, and have saved countless children’s lives. However, we now realize that they are not as harmless as we thought they were. They literally carpet bomb the microbiota, killing both good and bad bacteria. This has a very upsetting effect on the microbe composition, which in turn can affect asthma, allergies, obesity, diabetes, and many other “Western lifestyle” diseases we are now seeing in children. Antibiotics work only against bacterial infections, not viral or fungal, so they need to be used appropriately. Also, because of overuse of antibiotics, many microbes are now resistant to antibiotics that used to be effective treatments. We need to balance antibiotic use and employ them only when needed during serious bacterial infections.
Get more information on how to raise your children and their microbes at www.letthemeatdirt.com.