Early Childhood

Why getting dirty is good for children

Parents should allow children to play in mud, splash in puddles and play with animals. Exposure to germs helps them build robust immune systems

The tendency of 21st century parents to over-protect their children from all types of dirt and dust is debilitating their immune systems. While hitherto it was normative for children to spend hours playing outdoors in the rain or sunshine, the great majority of 21st century middle class children are raised indoors, in squeaky-clean environments. But this is bad for their health and well-being. Recent research indicates that allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and even obesity and coeliac ailments are all rooted in over-protected childhoods during which children are not exposed to the elements and natural flora and fauna.

Jack Gilbert, a microbial ecosystems scientist at the University of Chicago and co-author of Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System (Macmillan 2017), says that latter-day parents “protect” their children too much, and that they need to expose them to nature, plants and soil, “on a regular basis”.  Without exposure to dirt and germs early in life, the immune system doesn’t learn to control its reaction to everyday invaders such as dust and pollen. This can lead to allergies and other illnesses later in life.

However, allowing children to get dirty doesn’t mean that parents should abandon hygiene. It is still important to ensure that they wash their hands thoroughly with soap after outdoor play, bathroom visits, and interaction with pets, people, flora and fauna. 

Here are some ways parents can encourage their children to build up their natural immune systems.

Encourage outdoor play. Let children step out and play outdoors. Allow them to enjoy putting their hands and feet in water, dig in the garden, play in mud, pick up worms from ponds and catch frogs and tadpoles. This natural behaviour will increase their exposure to bacteria and consequently, develop their immune systems to become strong.

Befriend good bugs. Continuous use of sterilised and antiseptic products is preventing development of healthy gut bacteria, which are important for enhancing immunity. Therefore, encourage children to play in mud and soil which will expose them to soil-based organisms, which contain friendly bacteria which help to boost digestive immunity.

Allow play in sun, sand and with pets. Outdoor play in the sand and gardens is calming and stimulates minds. Outdoor play in sunshine provides children vitamin D, which helps prevent the onset of autoimmune illnesses. Sand contains several minerals that boost the immune system and free the body of hazardous toxins. For example, sand has the amazing ability to heal cuts and wounds quickly and stop runny noses. Similarly, letting the family dog/cat come in close contact with children builds their immunity and reduces the danger of them contracting unwanted allergies, asthma and obesity in later life.

Ditch antibacterial sanitisers. Parents who continuously use antiseptic hand sanitisers are unintentionally constraining immunity development and are unwittingly encouraging microbial resistance to some germs. Chemicals used in sanitisers also affect the hormonal balances of children. Therefore, it’s advisable to stick to good old soap and water and discourage unnecessary handwashing. 

Tasting isn’t bad. Even though it’s an instinctive response to prevent your child from tasting grass blades and tendrils, you must resist the urge to do so! Ditto the tendency to worry when your child nibbles at classroom chalk or chews on the car seat belt. You need to allow little children to familiarise themselves with the world around them. Catching colds and coughs is not entirely bad as they condition your toddler’s immune system to recognise and deal with pathogens causing infections. If your child falls ill and gets over it within a few days, this is sign of a robust immune system.  

Consuming fermented edibles. The majority of germs in the gut are very far down, in the large intestine. They require food to get to them. White flour, white sugar and refined foods don’t percolate to reach the large intestine, as it is effortlessly absorbed higher up, in the abdomen and small intestine. Therefore, you should inject microbes into your child’s gut by offering them fermented edibles, such as yogurt.

Gardening with children. This is the best option to get children close to dirt and introduce them to various soil conditions, bugs, insects and microbes. The omnipresence of environmental organisms will build up their immune systems to operate efficiently, modulating their bodily responses to fight hazardous infections.

(Dr. Chaitali Laddad is founder & director of The Paediatric Network, Mumbai)