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 their greatest aspiration is to seek out disgusting things to stuff in their 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 they 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.
Keeping Baby Healthy: Household Cleaning and Disinfecting
Getting the germs off surfaces in your home can be an important way of preventing illness. Household cleaning and disinfecting are both options.
Household cleaning with soap and water dislodges the germs from surfaces and washes them away. Disinfecting -- with substances like bleach -- actually kills the germs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, either approach is fine for normal household cleaning. However, if you’re particularly concerned -- or if someone else in the house is sick -- you may want to go with disinfecting, which can be more thorough.
So where should you start your household cleaning and disinfecting? Two areas are crucial -- kitchens and bathrooms.
- The kitchen. Food-borne illnesses are always a risk, so take special care that surfaces in your kitchen are clean.
Laura A. Jana, MD, a pediatrician in Omaha, Neb., and coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn, recommends wiping down kitchen surfaces and sinks daily with a disinfectant. “You want to have your counters clean enough that you can put food on them,” she says. Obviously, you should clean or disinfect immediately after you’ve been preparing raw meat, poultry or fish. Cleaning the floor regularly is a good idea too. You never know what might have dripped onto it when you were preparing dinner. Make sure that what you’re using to clean is clean itself. If you’re washing with a dirty sponge or rag, you could just be spreading germs around the kitchen.
- The bathroom. The bathroom is inevitably one of the most germ-filled spots in the house. So make sure to clean or disinfect the counter, sink, toilet, and floor. Be especially vigilant in your household cleaning if a family member has been sick with vomiting or diarrhea. Some stomach viruses are harder to kill than common cold and flu viruses.
Germ Warfare: How Far Should You Go?
Beyond those basics, what else do you need to do to keep your baby healthy?
For babies, sterilizing bottles and nipples after you buy them -- just by dropping them in boiling water for five minutes -- is a good idea. After that, you can usually just wash them by hand or in the dishwasher.
What about disinfecting things like toys, doorknobs, telephones, and computer keyboards? Is all that necessary to keep your baby healthy?
“I really think wiping off doorknobs and stuff like that is an exercise in futility,” Frenck says. When a child is spreading germs, they get absolutely everywhere. Trying to wipe down every surface in the house will just make you crazy, he says.
As for wiping down toys, Frenck says that doing it in a daycare makes sense, because there are so many different kids using them. But in your own home, with your own kids, it’s not as important. Jana, the mother of three, puts her focus elsewhere. “I don’t clean my kids’ toys,” she says. “I clean their hands.”
In a way, it depends on your comfort level. If going the extra mile in your disinfecting makes you feel more confident, go ahead. You could conceivably prevent your kid from getting sick. But you certainly don’t need to feel like a negligent parent if you’re not cleaning your keyboard with bleach-soaked cotton swabs each night.
“Don’t let your focus on germs impair your ability to enjoy yourself,” Jana says. “You don’t want to be one of those people who’s terrified of every little germ.”
It’s also worth remembering that there may be some drawbacks to keeping a home that’s too clean. Some studies have linked the development of allergies and asthma with kids who were raised in homes that were too antiseptic. Without some exposure to antigens as babies, the body may become hypersensitive to them later -- resulting in allergies and asthma.
Help! My Baby Has Eaten Something Disgusting!
Babies will put anything in their mouths -- dirt, dusty Cheerios from under the couch, slimy dog toys, and fossilized cheese crumbs from the car seat. “I had to pull a fly out of my younger child’s mouth once,” Altmann says. “That was pretty gross.”
So when your baby has put some ancient food into their mouth, how worried should you be? Happily, you probably don’t need to freak out.
“If a child eats some spoiled food, the worst they’ll probably get is a gastrointestinal illness,” Frenck says.
Of course, it can get much more horrible than old food. With luck, you will never have the traumatizing experience of finding your baby sitting in the kitty litter eating something unspeakable. But some parents do.
Even then, things will probably be fine.
“I’ve had many calls from parents who are worried because their babies have eaten a pet’s poop,” Altmann says. “However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of them get sick from it.”
That’s not to say that they couldn’t get sick. Pets can pass on diseases that could sicken a child. But as long as your cat or dog is getting their shots, the odds are pretty low. Some pets are riskier, like snakes and turtles, which can carry bacteria like salmonella. If you have an exotic pet, ask your child’s pediatrician for advice.
Naturally, if you’re ever concerned about something your kid has eaten or had in their mouth, call the doctor. Just remember that when it comes to babies putting stuff in their mouths, the biggest risks come not from the gross things, but from choking hazards and poisons, like medicines and cleaning agents.
Keeping Baby Healthy: Outside the House
Taking your baby out poses its own specific germ risks. Here are some things to consider.
- Controlling contact. When your child is very small -- say under three months -- experts say that it’s best to keep them away from crowds. But parents sometimes misunderstand, thinking that they’re supposed to keep their newborns in the house 24/7. That’s not the case.
“Going out for a walk really won’t harm the baby, and it will probably do the parents some good,” says Frenck. Just try to stay away from hordes of people. When people come to touch your baby, dissuade them.
- Eating out. When you’re dining out, bring along some antiseptic wipes. Wiping off the highchair and table are good ideas, Altmann says. “I personally don’t like seeing children eat their food right off the table at a restaurant,” says Jana. One option is to bring along your own place mat, either disposable or reusable.
- Other precautions. When you’re out -- at the mall, or in a supermarket -- there’s no question that your kids will pick up some germs on their hands. But some precautions that will help keep your baby healthy are pretty easy. Wiping down the grocery cart seat with an antiseptic wipe is simple and could help, for example.
But the world is too big to sterilize. You can’t wipe down the railing of an escalator, or a play structure, or the floor of the mall, or each particle of sand in a sandbox. So you just go back to the basics: washing hands or rubbing them with a hand sanitizer. There’s not much else you can do.
Keeping Baby Healthy: Striking a Balance
The key to keeping your baby healthy is to take some basic precautions -- like hand washing and some cleaning or disinfecting -- and then to go with your instincts. If you want to be extra cautious about germs, that’s fine. But you don’t have to.
Certainly, don’t beat yourself up when you turn your back for a second and then find your baby with a mouthful of dirt, or another kid’s lollipop, or something obviously foul that you just can’t identify. It happens.
“You could put your kids in a plastic bubble and they’d never get sick,” Jana tells WebMD. “But if you want to live in the real world, and enjoy it, you have to put up with germs and the occasional illness.”