Bring on the Germs. A Call to End the ‘No-Sickness-Allowed’ Culture

It happens to me 95% of the time. I take Banana to, oh, let’s say a friend’s house. Inevitably, the friend gives the sign that they might like to hold Banana. I offer up our pudgy, little baby. But no, they are backing away. What? Oh, they’ve gone to wash their hands first.

I have also had people cancel plans with us because they weren’t feeling great. Or, people whip out the hand sanitizer from their purse as we approach. Worst yet, I have had people shake their heads at me in disbelief because I don’t have anti-bacterial wipes in my kitchen.

My response? Bring on the germs.

For starters, I breastfeed. This means that any antibodies my body has generated are absorbed by Banana (babies younger than six months have something called an ‘open gut’ which allows proteins, such as white blood cells, to be absorbed directly into the blood stream). So, if I have the immunological defense, then Banana has the defense too.

Also, believe or not, I don’t mind if my children get sick. This might be simple Biology 101, but we often forget that exposure to germs strengthens the immune system. And experiencing the garden-variety flu or cold will help the body build a better defensive system.

In 1989, a researcher named D.P. Strachen put forth the “hygiene hypothesis” in the British Medicine Journal. His hypothesis suggested that the more hygienic our environments, the less our bodies will have a chance to build antibodies. He suggests that this might account for increases in allergies and asthma.

Which is why our family fully endorses the five-second-rule. You know, the idea that if you drop food on the floor, you have five seconds to recover it and put it back on your plate before it is considered garbage. This ‘rule’ was tested in an episode of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel as well as by researchers at the University of Illinois (Clarke, 2003). I would love to share that the tests reveal that the food is barely contaminated if picked up in under five seconds, but that is not the case. As soon as food hits the floor, it attracts bacteria. These results, however, still do not deter me picking up a perfectly good piece of toast (that has landed the right way up) and putting it back on The Bear’s plate.

I firmly believe that this excessive fear of germs has been generated by a ‘no-sickness-allowed’ culture. Much of the media, medical communications, and parental norms tell us that sickness should be avoided at all costs. Marketers play on our fears of extreme illness, especially when it comes to our children. Parents recite the ‘better safe then sorry’ mantra and purchase germ-busting products. There are the hand sanitizers, the sprays to use on kid’s toys, the covers for the grocery store cart, etc, etc, etc.

And if it is not extreme illness that parents are avoiding, then the ‘no-sickness-allowed’ culture encourages parents to view sickness as an inconvenience. Most information about keeping children healthy will include arguments that state concern over absenteeism from school or how children’s sickness will inevitably keep parents from going to work. Think of the Children Tylenol advertisements – the message is give your sick kids Tylenol so you can get back to your day – “get back to normal, whatever your normal is.”

But it’s okay to be sick! A couple of days off to recover from an illness should be encouraged, not avoided through self-medication!

Finally, consider the message the ‘no-sickness-allowed’ culture sends to the world of kids. When parents are always fearful of their children getting ill, they are essentially telling their children that they are vulnerable and weak. They are telling their children that the world is a scary place full of bacteria or allergens that they need to be protected from at all costs. They are also telling their kids that parents know best when it comes to protection from germs. Such messaging doesn’t exactly empower children to venture forth to explore the world as strong individuals independent of their parent’s guidance.

I must add that there is a certain amount of commonsense in basic hygiene principles – the tried-and-true hand-washing with soap and water; baths; brushing of teeth. But when commonsense hygiene is co-opted by fear, all we have left is a self-fulfilling prophecy of weak, dependent, passive children shuddering at the thought of going outside to play.


22 Responses to “Bring on the Germs. A Call to End the ‘No-Sickness-Allowed’ Culture”

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  6. 6 Lim HS June 21, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    Great post, Laura. I am an MD and have seen an increase in the incidence of conditions such as eacema and asthma. The topic of Hygiene Hypothesis has been revisited and a recent research has suggested a link between being overly hygienic and kids developing asthma and ezcema later on in lives. This is going to be very difficult to prove but the mechanisms explained make sense to me. It is published in the latest edition of the British Journal of Dermatology (June 2013).

    So, yes it is ok to fall sick and to take the risk of getting dirty.

  7. 7 kristy March 23, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Great post, Mama Tortoise! We don’t use hand sanitizer with our 3 kids. And isn’t that the point of free-range parenting? TO be not so hung up about germs and all the ‘dangers’ in the world so that your kids can be kids? Let it go. As far as I’m concerned, hand sanitizer is over-protecting.

    • 8 Mama Tortoise March 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Kristy.

      As I said earlier, we don’t use hand sanitizer either. But every parent has different levels of risk tolerance.

      During these kinds of discussions, I always think of the phrase ‘how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?’ from Alice in Wonderland. How far does one go being a free-range parent? You are forced to draw a line somewhere. In ‘Idle Parent’, Hodgkinson advocates for home schooling. For me, that is too far down the rabbit hole. Perhaps for others, letting go of hand sanitizer is too far down the rabbit hole.

      Keep pushing the envelope, Kristy.

  8. 9 Michelle March 23, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Time to give my two cents!

    For the most part, I agree with the message of your post. Colds and flus are a part of life and help us to build stronger immune systems. Exposure to dirt, dust and grime can reduce our potential for allergies and asthma.

    That said, I do use hand sanitizers on specific occasions. Not when the kids have been playing outdoors, at school or around the house (or someone else’s). My youngest loves a good mouthful of grass or soil. I use the sanitizer when we get into the car after shopping or visiting a public place, like the museum or World of Science, where there is so much to touch and explore. Bacteria like Salmonella and E. Coli, left after someone doesn’t wash their hands post-washroom visit or after handling food (it’s probably more common than I care to imagine), could be on these surfaces and I want to reduce my kids’ exposure. Those sorts of infections pose a much greater threat to my children’s overall health.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that there’s a time and place for these “tools”. As both you and Gillian mentioned, parents must use their discretion and some common sense. Unfortunately, not every possesses these and many rely too heavily on media input.

    • 10 Mama Tortoise March 23, 2010 at 10:21 am

      Thanks for your two cents, Michelle!

      I would also like to add that how we choose to expose our children to germs is part of our own risk tolerance. And, as adults, we all have different levels of comfort. I know that I am more of a ‘bring on the germs’ type than others as I wouldn’t use hand sanitizer. (I’m currently working on a post(s) about risk assessment as parents)


  9. 11 Gillian March 22, 2010 at 6:57 am

    Hi, Laura! I would like to add my opinion to your great post, if that’s ok. I totally agree that humans need to be sick. We have these incredible immune systems for a reason, and just like our muscles, it needs a good work-out to remain in tip-top shape and to stop it from turning against us. I also think that a little suffering and sacrifice build character and teaches us ways to cope when things aren’t as we would like them to be. I also don’t belive in medicating colds. A lot of these “remedies” have been shown to prolong the duration of colds by supressing many of our bodies natural methods of fighting infection. Now, definitely, I’ll give my boy a little Tylenol if he seems too uncomfortable to sleep at night, or if I’m worried about how high a temp is spiking. Medictions can be great allies, but only if used with huge discretion and common sense.

    I also very much agree with the letting kids explore without fear of getting dirty or germy. My boy quite happily plays outside in the deepest mud puddles and picks up all kinds of wierd things to wonder about. We come in when he’s done, wash our hands, and carry on.

    I do wash my hands prior to handling a newborn or very young infant, as I did with your little girl when I first met her. I do this because, even with the excellent protection that breast feeding provides, no one is immune to everything. Something which causes a minor sniffle for an adult or older child can be devastating to an infant. This is not so much germaphobia, for me at least, as it is a good dose of prevention. An infant’s airway is about the size of your little finger and a 1mm swelling causes a 16-fold increase in air resistance. Infants up to about 2-3 months old are obligate nose-breathers and an extremely congested nose can prevent feeding, which combined with fever, vomiting, or diarrhea, can quickly dehydrate an infant to the point of hospitalization. They have very little reserve. Oxgen consumption is very high in infants and something which causes a slight shortness of breath in an adult can necessitate a week on a ventilator for an infant. I do realize that I am presenting worst-case scenario and that my job gives me a bit of a skewed view of reality, but, even if in the minority, these things can and do happen. I wash to decrease the odds of something catastophic happening to someone I love, knowing that once the child is old enough to discover his own hands and to place them and a myriad of “dirty” objects in his mouth, he will have all the exposure he needs to keep himself sick and healthy! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on things in this blog. I enjoy the opportunity to read and ponder!

    • 12 Mama Tortoise March 22, 2010 at 9:26 am

      Hi Gillian,

      Thanks so much for your input. Especially, considering your job as a nurse, you have knowledge that I don’t. I prefer to stay in the social/cultural commentary arena!

      Along the lines of cultural critique… I understand that in severe cases, babies get sick. And if my children ever fall ill, I am very happy to be in a country where they can access top-notch care (with staff like you :-)). My post was designed to provoke thinking about what we do as parents to prevent these worst-case scenarios. When does prevention go too far? On what information do we base our modes of prevention on? What is considered normal and reasonable precautions, and when do these precautions become excessive? I’m not arguing for no hand-washing. Rather, I wanted to examine how we think about germs and where our norms regarding prevention come from. For you as a nurse, it makes sense that hand washing prior to handling an infant is a habit and affects your worldview.

      I also wanted to add that I’m totally with you when it comes to Tylenol – we use it in our house too. It’s their marketing slogan of “get back to normal” that I have a problem with – as if our body’s messages to us (a headache, fever, stuffy noses, etc.) should be suppressed so that we can return to our ‘normal’ lives. I would rather see a slogan that sends the message of: use Tylenol to make you feel better but remember that you are still sick so be sure to take care of the cause as well as the symptoms.

      Thanks for commenting. I need to be kept on my toes!

  10. 13 Mama Tortoise March 22, 2010 at 5:25 am

    Thanks for your comments, Kiki, amoment2think, and Heather –

    I thought about getting into my opinion about the reason Health Canada (or other governments) want us to be well is that if we are a nation of sickies, then our productivity drops and this can be economically devastating. I’m sure that this was one of the main motivator behind getting everyone immunized for the H1N1. (aside from the money that the pharm companies were making).

    It’s okay to be a little sick. Stay home, recover and move on.


  11. 14 Heather March 21, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    I totally agree with you on this. I bring Joseph out all the time…even when he’s not 100%. I often find the best thing for a cold is sunshine and fresh air. Of course I’d keep him home if he was vomiting, high fever etc. But a cold is a cold and we survived through them all.

    As for the hand washing, I avoid the antibacterial if I can. I’m not too worried about holding a baby if I haven’t washed yet…but that all depends on what I’ve been doing beforehand ofcourse.

    I can see why companies want to encourage antibacterial soaps and washing of hands after everything…it can be very costly when a flu sweeps through a company…but they are thinking short term and not into the future. They don’t think in terms of long term health and the afect that building antibodies will decrease the likelyhood that their employees will be down again with a very similar cold or flu.

    Love reading all your posts.

  12. 15 amoment2think March 21, 2010 at 9:34 am

    I totally agree with you! I find myself telling people a lot that I am not worried about the germs when they are around my daughter.

    Great post!

  13. 16 Kiki March 21, 2010 at 12:52 am

    Oh I love this! So true! Trying to find a hand soap that is NOT antibacterial is dang near impossible! And that hand sanitizer crap…I loathe it. Never use it.

    Great post!

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