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Dr. Zorba Paster: Crawling kids stirring up dust is a good thing

Penny and I Iove our grandkids. Our 2 ½ year old Bella is just so, so beautiful. And the new kid on the block, Olive, is as cute as a button. She just woke up from her one-month sleep – that newborn time when you eat, poop, sleep, repeat.

Brain growth for that immediate newborn period is critical for living a long, sweet, happy life. These little ones sleep about 20 hours a day. My son, Zak, said to me that perhaps we all should have a month of sleep now and then. Can you just imagine!

Top of my list of things to think about is childhood development. Crawling kids on floors stir up all sorts of dust and dirt. Whether it’s carpeted, wood or just plain dirt as they crawl, they eat and inhale yukky stuff. Is that good for them? Should we be putting them in a sterile environment that’s germ- and dirt-free? Nope.

Researchers out of Purdue looked at just what kids kick up as they move around. High levels of dirt, bacteria, skin cells, pollen, fungi and – you guessed it – scat from the dog, cat or whatever you tracked into the house when you came in from the outside.

So what did these scientists do? Purdue is a great research university. They calculated. They found that these rug rats inhaled about four times the amount of biomass as we adults do on a typical day. That’s right – lots and lots of organic and inorganic junk including microbes that may play a role in protecting us from allergies and asthma.

We have more allergies, more asthma, more autoimmune diseases now than we’ve ever had. A theory propagated several years ago was that this was due in part to our super-clean environment. The idea is that we are making our children too “sterile,” which encourages their immune system – built to fight invaders – to turn inward and fight itself.

The concept is shocking in some ways but not in others. We thought we were protecting our infants by making them safe, by making everything super clean, but in fact we were hurting them.

As babies roll from side to side, they stir up a dust cloud, inhaling it deep into their lungs, where their body processes any foreign invaders. This isn’t bad for kids, it’s good for them. In the 1980s, British scientist David Strachan postulated the hygiene hypothesis – that we need these “allergens” to stay well.

When I was in training, the standard of care in many hospitals was to wash the child’s umbilical cord with a cleanser called Phisohex – it contained hexachlorophene, a commonly used acne treatment invented to cut down bacteria on the skin that cause this teenage skin condition. Doctors thought what was good for acne would be good for an umbilical cord. Keep it clean until it dropped off. And they were beautiful-looking umbilical cords, better-looking than the Mother Nature ones that look yukky and then fall off.

It seemed like a great idea until someone bothered to look at the blood levels of hexachlorophene in the babies, finding that these kids had high levels of a potentially harmful neurotoxin from the Phisohex ingredients. What looked good was bad.

This falls in line with what we now know about the uptick in peanut allergies. Since the pediatric professionals outlawed peanut products for little kids, peanut allergies have soared. Recent research shows that giving a kid a safe peanut product, such as smooth peanut butter, actually appears to protect the child from peanut allergies. A reminder, by the way, not to give regular peanuts, as kids can inhale them and choke on them.

My spin: Yes, having a clean house is important for sure. But keeping your kid from anything that is not “sterile” is not healthy. Our bodies are made to handle all sorts of things. So let those rug rats crawl on the floor. They’ll be happier and healthier for it. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, professor at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and host of the public radio program “Zorba Paster on Your Health,” which airs at noon Wednesdays on 91.1 FM, and noon Sundays on 91.9 FM. His column appears twice a month in The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at askzorba@ doctorzorba.com.


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