Let's face it: Toddlers are germ magnets. They're drippy and drooly and, as gross as it may seem to you, they happily put almost everything in their mouth. Fortunately, experts agree that most germs are harmless -- and may even be helpful. "Humans actually need exposure to good germs early in life to prime our immune system so it develops properly," says Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., co-director of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons College, in Boston. Still, to help your kid (and the rest of the family) stay healthy, it's important to keep your toddler's world relatively free from those germs that can be dangerous. Not sure what you need to scrub and what can be swept under the rug? We've got the dirt on all things dirty right here.
Pop quiz: Which room is the germiest in most houses? If you said the kitchen, you're absolutely right! Young children are particularly susceptible to food-borne illnesses like salmonella, E. coli, and campylobacter, because their immune system is not yet fully developed -- and they can become dehydrated more easily than adults if they get sick. For that reason, it's especially important to take extra care with food preparation and cleanup.
While you're fixing a meal for your little one, make sure you keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood away from other foods, and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after touching any of these ingredients. Also keep in mind that the absolute germiest place in your kitchen is the sink, according to Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. With all the raw food products that tend to land there, it's a veritable party of pathogens, so never give your child anything that's fallen in -- even a stray berry from the bunch that you're rinsing.
After every meal, use a paper towel (not a sponge) to wipe down the high chair's food tray with cleaning spray (be sure to look for one that says "disinfectant" rather than "antibacterial" and has an Environmental Protection Agency registration number -- which insures that it actually does disinfect).
Bath toys are a bull's-eye for bacteria and mold, since water often gets trapped inside them, creating the perfect breeding ground. Squeeze out your kid's duckies, tile appliqu?s, and other water playthings after each use, and then place the toys on a drying rack or in a mesh bag, suggests Parents advisor Harley A. Rotbart, M.D., author of Germ Proof Your Kids. Once a month, give the toys a thorough bleach bath, he adds. (To do so, fill the sink with water and a quarter cup of bleach, then let the toys soak for about 50 minutes before rinsing and air-drying.)
Once you start potty training, teach your child to wash his hands after doing his business -- use liquid soap and warm water, and scrub for as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song before drying. Also teach him to shut the lid before flushing. Studies have shown that the first flush after a bowel movement vaporizes up to 3,000 bacteria and viruses per cubic meter of air space, notes Dr. Rotbart, so it's also important to keep your toddler's toothbrush far away from the toilet in case he forgets to close the toilet lid.
Though a well-loved toy may start to smell a little funky, there's no need to worry about germs -- unless your child is sick or has been sharing it with a playmate. "Influenza viruses can survive up to three days on plastic, and ones that cause diarrhea can survive for up to a month," warns Dr. Gerba. So after a friend comes to visit (or your sick child is done playing), give plastic toys a once-over with a disinfectant, and toss stuffed animals that can be cleaned into the washing machine (others should be placed on a top shelf for a few days, suggests Dr. Rotbart).
Because handling a diaper is an inherently germy activity, keep a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer nearby so you won't spread bacteria throughout the rest of the house after you're done. (If your kid touches her privates during a change, you can use a small squirt on her fingers too.) When you're changing a poopy diaper, be sure to place a diaper pad or a paper towel under your toddler's bottom -- and then toss it into the laundry or trash (wash pads in hot water with bleach, separate from any kitchen stuff to avoid possible cross contamination). Finally, keep disinfectant wipes handy to quickly clean off the changing area after each use.
Rotavirus and norovirus -- both of which are present in poop and can cause gastrointestinal illnesses -- can often be found to be lurking in your toddler's bedroom and his bed, especially if he's still in diapers. Although kids become immune to viruses that they've already been infected with, you don't want to transfer germs back and forth among family members. To be on the safe side, change your little one's linens once a week (even more if he is sick). Same goes for his pajamas -- as long as they're not soiled, it's perfectly fine for him to wear them for up to a week at a time, according to Dr. Rotbart.
Thanks to the sheer number of kids who use them each day, the swings, slides, and rings at your local park are teeming with germs. It's practically impossible to keep your child's hands off the equipment, so instead focus on keeping her fingers out of her mouth while she's playing and use alcohol-based gel on her hands when she's taking a breather and before you give her any snacks. Same goes for when she's digging in the sandbox (you might assume it's germy because animals may use it as a bathroom, but the risk actually isn't very big, Dr. Rotbart assures).
You'll also take some extra precautions at the water fountain, since germs can multiply with moisture. Tell your child to keep her tongue and lips away from the spigot, and then let the water run for a few seconds before she takes a sip. Once she's refreshed, she can get back to playing -- and you can relax knowing she's (relatively) germ-free.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Parents magazine.