Are germs good for your child?

Checkup: Worried about bacteria and other microbes? You may be surprised to learn that some are good for your kid

Photo: Ivan Engler

Last year, when Max* was a toddler, his mom Karina Jones* turned around just in time to watch him grab something off the kitchen floor and put it in his mouth. “Our dog had an accident earlier that day and I think we missed a bit when we were cleaning up,” recalls the Toronto mom of one. Yup, little Max had sampled a raisin-sized piece of dog poop.
“I was shocked, but I didn’t freak out,” Jones says. She cleaned up her son and decided simply to ask their paediatrician about it at Max’s 18-month checkup, which happened to be the next day.

Her instincts were spot-on. The paediatrician wasn’t worried about Max’s misadventure because exposure to bacteria and other microbes can actually be healthy for kids, helping to build their immune systems. What’s more, a hyper-clean environment has been linked to kids developing conditions such as asthma and eczema.

Kids contact germs constantly. Yes, some are dangerous – but others really aren’t a big deal. Here’s how to tell the difference.

With your new baby
Some new parents insist that visitors wash their hands before meeting their newborn. That really isn’t necessary unless your well-wishers have a cold or an upper respiratory infection, says Joanne Embree, a paediatric infectious disease specialist in Winnipeg and head of the University of Manitoba’s Depart-ment of Medical Microbiology. “A cold to you can become pneumonia to a young baby.” Rule of thumb: visitors who are ill should stay away. But couldn’t a seemingly healthy visitor be carrying a virus or germs from public transit or a trip to the mall? “The chances of them picking up something are relatively low,” says Embree. “It’s not a bad idea for people to wash their hands, but I wouldn’t obsess over it.”

Public bathrooms? Yuck! Find more germs on the next page>

In the bathroom  
Washrooms – at home, at school, in the mall – get contaminated with bacteria that can make a child ill, such as E. coli. A thorough handwashing after using the toilet is an absolute must. If the water taps aren’t automatic, teach your child to turn them off with a paper towel, so he avoids getting the same germs back on his hands.  

Although many of us were taught as children to hover over a toilet seat or cover it with toilet paper before sitting, it’s probably not necessary, unless your child happens to have a cut on the back of his legs. “I don’t quite see the rationale for it,” says Perry Kendall, BC’s provincial health officer. (If the seat is visibly soiled, do wipe it down first.)

At the playground
Toddler digging in the dirt? No need to rush over with the antibacterial wipes. “Most microbes found in soil are not pathogenic to humans,” says Kendall, who adds that it’s actually important to introduce some bacteria to the body, and that can be done through contact with the outdoors. But if cats or raccoons tend to wander the neighbourhood at night, have a look around the playground’s sandbox to ensure it hasn’t been used as a litter box. Bacteria and parasites from animal feces can cause illness and even death.

Once you’ve taken these modest precautions, “you don’t need to be overly anxious about germs,” says Howard Njoo, a medical doctor and director general of the Centre for Communicable Diseases and Infection Control at the Public Health Agency of Canada. His message for Canadian parents: Get your child vaccinated to protect against many of the worst germs. And instead of worrying about what’s lurking in the sandbox, spend that energy making sure your little one learns solid hygiene habits –particularly handwashing before eating and after using the washroom. As long as they follow that one germ-fighting rule, “kids can go out and play in the mud,” says Embree. “Kids can be kids.”  

*Name changed by request.

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