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The Dirt on Germs

Is there such a thing as too clean? Find out why babies may benefit from a world that's not super-sanitized.
Avoiding Germs Is Your Child Too Clean?

Most parents consider germs public enemy number one. We arm ourselves with soaps and sprays and pack our diaper bags full of wipes and sanitizers. But germs may be getting a bad rap. Plenty are harmless and can even help kids stay healthy. That's why doctors now agree that trying to keep children completely clean and germ-free is a bad idea. Recent research suggests that a kid growing up in a home that's too sanitary may not get enough practice battling germs, which the immune system needs in order to learn how to properly react to bacteria and viruses that cause illness. Too little exposure to germs can result in an immune system that doesn't know how to regulate itself, which in turn can lead to autoimmune disorders such as allergies or asthma, says Joel Weinstock, M.D., chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts University School of Medicine, in Boston. "When we're born, our immune system is a blank slate," he says. "As we grow, it learns from exposure." This theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, has been making waves among health care professionals. This doesn't mean that cleanliness isn't important, but it's more complicated than most of us thought. There are bad germs, good germs, and some that can go either way. The trick is avoiding the bad while embracing the good. Read on for the do's and don'ts of hygiene.