Science Mom: Kids Need To Be Exposed To Germs To Thrive

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A young baby’s nervous system is a delicate thing. At first, almost every sight, sound, and smell is a new one – every interaction with the non-uterine world presents a new challenge to that tiny little brain. For a brand-new human being, it’s a pretty sudden transition from a quiet, dark, tiny universe to a great big noisy bright one, and their miniature nervous system kicks into overdrive to process and handle it all. But why should it have to? In order to protect babies from the difficulty of nervous system challenges, why not put them somewhere safe for the first few years of their life: a nice, dark, quiet box, maybe?

Of course it’s ridiculous to suggest that an infant’s neurological development would be well served by keeping him away from any challenge. New faces, voices, sensations, and scents are how babies learn – having to deal with the daily trials and tribulations of being ejected from the amniotic swimming pool is what helps babies mature from the admittedly adorable but somewhat potato-esque stage of life into thinking, rational beings. (The “rational” part takes a little longer – about 25 years, if my own experience is any indication.) No reasonable person would want to keep a baby “safe” from learning and developing by keeping him in a dark padded room for a few years … and yet, when it comes to another highly complex system in that same baby’s body, a lot of people are willing and eager to do pretty much the same thing.

As with a baby’s brain, a newborn’s immune system is something of a tabula rasa. During pregnancy, it’s the parental immune system that does all the heavy lifting – most infections can’t even get across the placenta in the first place, which means until birth, fetuses are very much in a dark quiet box, immunity-wise. When they make their debut to the world outside, that immune system needs to explore and learn and process just as the brain does – at least if it’s ever going to be of much use. And spraying antibacterial agents all over anything and everything in baby’s path turns the excitingly germ-riddled world all around into another dark and dull place for an immune system that’s trying to figure out how to interact with the outside.

Take a look a certain baby registries lately and you’ll see an incredible list of antibacterial products: wipes. Shopping cart covers. Picnic blankets. Hand sanitizer. Baby clothing. This probably sounds great to any number of nervous new parents looking to do the best by their kids. But everything around you (and inside you – by sheer numbers, there are actually more bacterial cells in your body than there are your own cells) is covered in a fine layer of microbes, and for the most part, those guys aren’t going to hurt anyone. What they do provide is an opportunity for your baby’s immune system to investigate, and to figure out how to organize some sort of response. The kiddo’s immune system has to learn how to pick out which cells in the body aren’t actually supposed to be there, and then how to blow them up like an overfilled water balloon. If the immune system never gets a chance to practice on harmless dog-drool bacteria, how’s it supposed to have a decent chance of doing the right thing when something serious shows up?

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