Is living in an over-sanitized world necessarily a healthy thing? Science has proven over and over again that keeping children squeaky clean can actually be detrimental to their health as they grow up. In their book, Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Our Children from an Oversanitized World, Dr. Marie-Claire Arrietta and Dr. Brett Finlay explore the dangers of growing up in an oversanitized environment, and discuss the health benefits of letting children “get a little dirty”.
Ottawa Life Magazine got an interview with the authors to learn what effects oversanitization is having on us over time, and how letting kids get a little dirt on them isn’t a bad thing.
Why did you decide to write Let Them Eat Dirt?
We are both microbiologists; Brett has been studying microbes for over 30 years and Claire trained as a postdoctoral fellow in his lab the past few years. Through our research we found that babies that are missing certain microbes go on to develop asthma later in life. This was really startling for us not just as scientists but as parents. We both have children and we thought other parents would be as interested in this information as we are. It wasn’t just our research telling us that microbes are crucial in our lives, but also the work of many cutting-edge scientists around the world. In Let Them Eat Dirt, we covered topics that are truly important to raise healthy children, based on recent breakthrough discoveries, and what parents could do about it given the current science. We knew once we talked about it that this message was too relevant to keep it only in scientific papers.
As your book points out, parents today are obsessed sanitization and over-cleanliness. Where does this obsession come from in our culture?
Historically we have focused on the microbes that cause diseases and we (microbiologists and doctors) gave them a bad rep. We also realized that sanitation and cleanliness decreased infections. No one really knew much about the health-promoting role of microbes until very recently, and the consequences of cleaning up our world. Because of this, to most people, the word microbe is equal to infections and our innate nature is to get rid of them. We are all taught that the only way to prevent infectious diseases is to kill as many microbes as we can. These efforts paid off as it is thanks to these measures that antibiotics and vaccines were invented and no one can deny the huge benefits of antibiotics, vaccines, and sanitation. Battling microbes was good for us but we now realize there are consequences. There is collateral damage to cleansing our environment that has led to an increase in many “Western-lifestyle” associated diseases, including asthma, allergies, obesity, diabetes, even autism. It is time to become less rigid with how we see and deal with microbes, and realize there are both good and bad ones, and we need the good ones.
In your book, you show how certain hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing and constant sanitizing actually harm more than help our children’s healthy development. Why is this?
Hand washing remains truly important; it is a known measure to prevent disease and we are not suggesting that people should stop doing it. However, it is so common to see parents washing their children’s hands all day long with antimicrobial hand soap, when this is not necessary. Washing their hands before eating with soap and water and after using the washroom has proven to be beneficial for preventing disease, but washing more than that hasn’t. Constant sanitizing of surfaces and preventing our kids to touch anything that isn’t squeaky clean is preventing them to get a healthy exposure to microbes. Microbes are essential to healthy development, especially early in life. They train our immune system and other aspects of our metabolism, without them we simply do not develop properly.
What are some steps parents can take right away to combat this?
In Let Them Eat Dirt we made the effort to mention as many specific things that parents should do or should not do, including a specific list of To Do’s after each chapter. We wouldn’t be able to mention them all here but a few important things to consider are: to be smart about antibiotics — take them only when absolutely necessary following your doctor’s instructions; to feed children a fibre-rich diet, which promotes the growth of health-promoting microbes in kids’ guts; to consider getting a dog, especially one that goes outside and shares playing time (and kisses) with the kids; and to become less strict about keeping our kids squeaky clean, to name a few.
Does your approach only apply to toddlers and school-age children, or can babies also benefit from a little dirt?
Our message is to follow normal developmental cues with babies and toddlers. Babies normally don’t come in contact with dirt yet toddlers and older children do, and we should keep it this way and allow toddlers and older kids to be kids, by getting dirty outdoors, within reason. Younger babies do want to put all sorts of things in the mouth, including hands, feet, toys and mom and dad’s fingers and that is normal. We don’t need to sterilize everything that goes into their mouths.
What about parents who are afraid of spreading sicknesses in schools? Is there such a thing as too much bacteria?
Preventing disease is extremely important. While exposing our kids to health-promoting microbes through diet and outdoor time, exposing them to disease has never been shown to be beneficial to their health. In fact, it is the opposite. However, the issue is not necessarily the amount of bacteria but the types of bacteria. Undoubtedly we can’t tell what types of bacteria are out there because we can’t see them, but we know that how common child diseases spread: through direct contact, sneezes, coughs and touching surfaces that were in recent contact with someone sick. Those are the types of contacts that make sense to avoid, and that is different from not letting your child get dirty, as dirt does not equal disease.
You are both parents yourselves. How do you incorporate your approach you’re your own home lives?
This new knowledge has changed our view too. Claire has relaxed more about keeping her kids clean and really reinforced the importance of being outdoors and feeding her children a healthy fibre-rich diet. She also feeds kefir and/or probiotic-rich yogurt to her kids daily. Brett is anxiously awaiting grandkids to put all these ideas into practice, although his kids were also raised in a more “relaxed dirt” environment.