Can lazy parenting make healthier kids?
Anyone who has ever had an infant who uses a pacifier has confronted the situation: Baby lets binkie fall out of mouth. Binkie hits ground. Baby commences crying. Question arises: How to restore the pacifier to a hygienic state before returning it to baby and putting a stop to the shrieks?
You could wash it carefully in the sink. You could even boil it in hot water to kill any germs that attached themselves. But maybe you're a harried parent with another kid who skinned her knee or a boss who's waiting. Or maybe you're at the park or on the bus with no sanitising materials handy.
Or maybe you're just too tired or lazy to bother. In that case, you may wipe it off, quickly suck on it to remove any debris and restore it to the infant, possibly uttering a silent prayer for forgiveness.
This last option may be common, but it risks a stern lecture from medical authorities. The website of the Mayo Clinic urges cleaning a pacifier by boiling it, putting it in the dishwasher or using soap and water. "Resist the temptation to 'rinse' the pacifier in your own mouth," it commands. "You'll only spread more germs to your baby."
So a lot of parents avoid doing this at all costs. Others do it but feel guilty about it. (And that's not even getting into the issue of whether babies and toddlers should be given pacifiers in the first place, another source of guilt.) Licking your baby's chew toy falls into that category of parental options that are rationalized as "not criminally negligent or horribly inexcusable".
But it turns out the parents who suppress their feelings of guilt may be suppressing something else as well - certain diseases that afflict children. A new study in the journal Pediatrics indicates that "parental sucking of their infant's pacifier may reduce the risk of allergy development, possibly via immune stimulation by microbes transferred to the infant via the parent's saliva".
In other words, the germs on your spit may not spread illness but prevent it, by giving the kid's immune system something useful to do. A mother's love is good, but a mother's slobber could be even better.
The Pediatrics researchers found that the kids whose parents took the path of least resistance were 88 per cent less likely to have asthma and 63 per cent less likely to develop eczema. They also had fewer food allergies.
The revelation is not entirely surprising. Sterility can backfire. Scientists have noticed that certain allergies have become more common as children's environments have become cleaner.
In 2007, Dr Marc McMorris, a paediatric allergist at the University of Michigan Health System, told the website ScienceDaily, "We've developed a cleanlier lifestyle, and our bodies no longer need to fight germs as much as they did.
This latest discovery will come as a relief to a lot of parents who fall short of official standards of perfection. And the ones who always took every precaution to guard against nasty microbes? Cheer up. A little guilt - like a little dirt - never killed anyone.