Surprisingly, dirt can be good for babies. The “hygiene hypothesis” is the belief that exposure to dirt—and more importantly, the bacteria, viruses, and worms it contains—stimulates the development of a healthy immune system.
Children who are raised in fastidiously clean environments and who lack exposure to dirt will lack exposure to the very organisms that help them develop appropriate immune response. Our increasing tendency to avoid dirt may be why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and allergies have risen dramatically in recent years.
When dirt is not-so-good
Not all types of dirt are considered safe for babies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns of possible hazards found in soil including:
- chemical contamination such as lead, other heavy metals, and bacteria from sewage or manure)
- parasites such as roundworm, from feces of pets or other wildlife
Children should not walk barefoot or play in areas where pets or other animals have passed feces, and they should always wash their hands with soap and warm water before eating.
In some cases, children who are continually exposed to contaminated dirt may suffer a host of health complications, including:
- abdominal pain
- intestinal obstruction
- inhibited growth
- cognitive delays
Concerns about parasites and other soil contaminants may cause you to think twice about letting your children play in the dirt, but remaining conscious of the area where your child is playing can prevent potentially harmful exposures. Learn more about dangerous parasites here.