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Once you become a parent, the world seems a filthy, germ-ridden place. You can’t look at a doorknob or a waiting room magazine without worrying about the microscopic enemies squirming invisibly on the surface.

Meanwhile, your baby has different ideas. “In the first few years of life, babies put everything into their mouths,” says Robert W. Frenck Jr., MD, professor of pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. “Absolutely everything.”

For a parent, it isn’t easy. How are you supposed to keep your baby healthy when her greatest aspiration is to seek out disgusting things to stuff in her mouth? To give you some guidance on what germ precautions you should take -- and which worries you can shrug off -- WebMD turned to the pros: pediatricians and experts on infectious disease. Here’s what they had to say.

Keeping Baby Healthy: Understanding Germs

As a parent, it’s easy to get stressed out about germs. Some can cause serious illnesses that are especially dangerous to young children. But the next time you have to fish something germy and disgusting out of your baby’s mouth, take heart. Babies have immune systems that are more resilient than you might think.

“In our environment, we’re exposed to hundreds and hundreds of antigens a day, from dust to pollen to viruses and to bacteria,” Frenck says. “The fact is that our immune systems do very well in protecting us.”

Germ exposure is also just part of growing up. “Germs are unavoidable,” says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, a pediatrician and author of Mommy Calls:Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers. “They’re everywhere, and part of being an infant and toddler is being exposed to lots and lots of them.”

Exposure to germs builds up a baby’s immune system. Once the body is infected by a specific virus, it learns how to make antibodies to fight it. The next time it’s exposed, the body can fight it off without getting an infection.

That said, you never want to deliberately expose your child to bacteria or viruses.

“I would never advocate giving a child a virus purposefully to build immunity,” Frenck says. They get plenty of exposure to germs naturally. “But you also don’t want to keep children in cocoons to prevent exposure because it’s not going to work.”

Keeping Baby Healthy: Washing Hands and Getting Shots

Instead of fretting about germs, what you need to do is take some simple, sensible precautions against them. These won’t stop your kids from getting sick -- not by a long shot -- but they should make it happen a little less frequently.

  • Washing hands. The most common way to catch an infectious disease is by touch. The hands pick up germs and then transport them to the eyes or mouth. So if you can just keep your kid’s hands clean, you greatly reduce the chances that he will get sick. Although soap and water is always preferred, alcohol-based hand sanitizers work well, too. Just make sure you use them correctly. “You need to rub your hands together vigorously for about 20 seconds with hand sanitizers,” Frenck says.
  • Getting vaccinations. Don’t forget that protecting your kids against germ-based illnesses isn’t all about soap and hand sanitizer. “The most important way that parents can protect their children from very serious illnesses is to follow the recommended vaccine schedule,” Altmann says.

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