Stop what you’re doing and step away from the disinfectant. Put down the sponge and peel off those rubber gloves. While it’s perfectly natural to want to create a super-clean environment for your little one, as free from bugs and bacteria as possible, experts now have us wondering whether our surfaces might be sparkling a little too much.

When you first bring home your bundle of joy, you quickly learn how germ-plagued places – from homes to the outside world – can be, and you want to do everything possible to keep nasties at bay. Your fears about them aren’t all that crazy when you’ve got an ever-so-precious newborn. Babies in their first few weeks are special cases and cleanliness is paramount. But there will eventually come a time when you need to let go… just a little.

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The big question
So why shouldn’t we lather our kids in bubbles at the slightest sign of dirt? Isn’t clean a good thing? Health experts have been pondering this question for years.

As a society, we’re a clean bunch – our homes are more sterile now than ever before and improvements in water quality and sanitation mean that we’re seeing fewer people suffering from serious infectious diseases, explains Dr Louis Cheung, a general paediatrician at Sydney Children's Hospital and Prince of Wales Private.

But Dr Cheung flags a theory known as the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that the more sterile our surroundings have become, the more susceptible our kids have grown to allergies, asthma and even type-1 diabetes. Yikes!

Here’s one way to look at it: PP’s resident GP, Dr Ginni Mansberg, says that as littlies grow they build a library of protective immune system proteins called antibodies to store for the rest of their lives. There’s a belief out there that the more bugs children are exposed to early on in life, the more resistance they’ll have to illness later. “For that reason I call these little colds and flus the ‘training wheels’ of the immune system,” she says.

While there’s not an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to support this theory, many experts agree there’s something about this hygiene hypothesis that makes good sense. Relaxing our approach to cleanliness just a little will do no harm and, at best, it could do a world of good, they say.

Germ magnets
Little people have a knack for finding dirty things. Every new texture is there to be touched and anything within reach is to be tasted. If you’ve ever watched on in horror as your sweetie squished and squelched foreign-looking goo into her fingers or as she chomped on an unidentified object dug from the depths of the sandpit, you’ll know how easy it is for little ones to get themselves into muddy, mucky messes.

“We have less control over germs than we realise,” explains Dr Cheung. The truth is, bacteria are absolutely everywhere. They’re so tiny you can only see them under a microscope, and if you were to line up 1000 of them end to end, they would only fit across the tip of a pencil eraser, say doctors at the US Mayo Clinic.

Just one single teaspoon of soil can contain up to one billion bacteria, 120,000 fungi and 25,000 algae, according to the UK-based Society for General Microbiology. Seriously goose-bump inducing stuff!

It’s no wonder many of us rarely shirk the urge to whip out a wipe and clean those icky hands and dirty surfaces. There are times, though, when we could, and robably, should resist. Getting the balance right, Dr Cheung explains, is all about taking a relaxed, commonsense approach.

When to wash
Thorough hand-washing is essential to staying free of the nasty, menacing kinds of germs, such as those lurking in the loo and the kind that can cause gastroenteritis.

The best way to teach your child when and how to wash is to lead by example, says Dr Cheung. “Teach and model good hygiene, such as washing hands thoroughly after using the toilet, before touching and preparing food, after handling pets and garbage, and if you’re feeling unwell. If children are old enough, show them how to properly dispose of dirty tissues and how to cover their mouths when they sneeze and cough,” he explains.

According to Dr Mansberg, one of the common ways kids can become sick is through the faecal-oral route – when hands (yours or your little one’s) aren’t cleaned well enough after using the bathroom and the germs end up in your munchkin’s mouth. Gross, but true!

Good old-fashioned soap and warm water lathered for at least 15 to 20 seconds is your best defence against these and other germs. Make sure those little thumbs get a good wash too, Dr Mansberg adds. Too frequently parents give the palms of the hands and fingers a good foaming yet those rebellious thumbs remain up in the air, barely getting a splash and holding on to nasty germs.

Establishing good hand hygiene practices will set your sweet pea up for healthy habits later on in life. A recent study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found that school kids who took part in a compulsory hand-hygiene program had 26 per cent fewer sick days and 22 per cent fewer bouts of illness than children who were given no rules or coaching.

Also, if you’ve wondered whether to squeeze some hand sanitiser onto your kid’s hands for a quick clean, Dr Mansberg recommends being cautious. Hand sanitisers often contain alcohol which can be harsh on delicate skin, she says. Also, an ingredient called triclosan found in some sanitising gels is being investigated by the US Food and Drug Administration to see whether it may be harmful. Check the ingredients on product labels if you’re concerned.

Welcoming a little dirt
Softening your strong stance on cleanliness a little can help your child build a healthy response to germs, but this doesn’t mean you should sit back and let your tyke go bananas! But it does mean you don’t have to sweat the small stuff. Dr Cheung says he often sees parents become paranoid about their surroundings to the point where they don’t let their children touch anything foreign. But there’s no need to worry about your little one handling the same toys as others or sitting in the trolley at the supermarket.

Many mums and dads also become concerned about having pets around their child, but Dr Mansberg says that isn’t too much cause for worry. Yes, dogs and cats are laden with bacteria, “but amazingly there’s no evidence that animals cause infection, per se.

Care, however, should be taken for newborns in their first month and people on chemotherapy.” Kitty litter does pose a health risk, so always ensure it’s placed well out of sight and reach. “A lot of studies show that kids really benefit from pet ownership and anybody who has animals and brings a baby home will know that it’s just so beautiful,” Dr Mansberg adds.

Enjoy the feeling of worrying less, but always remain watchful of the things your child picks up, what she pops in her mouth and where she plays. For example, the grass can be a safe and happy place for kids, but
if yours happens to be rummaging around near a tree, chances are it could be covered in dog pee, so you might want to run a wipe over her hands in those instances. Again, it’s all about commonsense.
Dr Mansberg assures that children are fairly resilient and often our reaction to seeing a child touch something disgusting is more of an emotional response – an ‘eeew’ moment – rather than being a cause for real alarm. “If a child is old enough to be picking up dirt, then her immune system is probably mature enough to cope with that,” she says.

So, rather than striving to be the Queen of Clean, put the welcome mat out to a little more muck and let your munchkin get her mitts into some fun.

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