Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Dirt and Cleanliness

I read a fascinating article in the Christmas issue of The Economist about filth and dirt! It explained the historical change in attitudes towards cleanliness. It was news to me that in the 17th-century bathing was judged as a health risk because medical thought at that time believed the exposure of the body to hot water would mean the skin would open up and thus take in ills or disease. Baths were therefore avoided - apparently Louis XIII wasn't given a bath until he was almost seven and in England, Elizabeth I took a bath just once a month!

Fast-forward to the early 20th-century and American advertising campaigns promoted cleanliness for our bodies (in the form of soaps, deodorants, dental mouthwash etc) and also for our homes and clothing (cleaning products for bathrooms/kitchens and laundry detergents). Today we have a mass of products promising to rid our bodies and home environments of all types of grime,  germs and bacteria. The article concludes by questioning whether our current attitudes towards dirt have gone too far towards the hyper-clean, to the extent we create such sterile environments for our children, that their immune systems fail to fully develop. There's a theory that insufficient exposure to bacteria might explain growing cases of eczema, asthma and other allergic conditions in richer countries.

The article concludes by mentioning a book, 'Why Dirt is Good' by Mary Ruebush, an American immunologist. She recommends parents encourage their children to play in the dirt in order that they come into contact with the kind of germs required to establish a strong immune system.

I'm in agreement with Ruebush and playing in the dirt is not something I get worried about with my own son. Whilst I have many years to come of him playing in more serious dirt than he has done to date, I think it's a good part of embracing exploration, adventure and play. As long as hands get washed thoroughly afterwards (and anything else that gets dirty in the process), I'm of the opinion it's all good fun. However, there is a difference between playing in dirt in a garden or playground and playing amongst germs on a heavily populated floor of a London tube train for example.

The earlier item in the article about bathing is interesting to consider with babies and children too. Mothers of newborns in the UK are advised to top-and-tail initially and only bath the baby once a week, so as not to dry out their delicate skin. Bath products are not advised, instead a few drops of olive oil are recommended to help soften dry skin.

Most parenting books, when talking about establishing a good night-time routine with your child, mention a bath as being a good way to wind down and something to associate with getting ready for bed. I think that's why most parents quickly progress to giving their baby a bath every night. Is a daily bath necessary though, especially pre-crawling/walking? I still don't give my one-year old a bath every day. During the winter months when he is playing inside all the time, he doesn't get very dirty and I naturally keep him clean and wash him on evenings when he doesn't have a bath. There's a big market for baby bath products, all with the promise of being gentle to their skin but of course water itself dries out skin. A mother I know who has two children aged 4 and 6 told me she no longer washes their hair (doesn't use any shampoo) and finds that the natural oils keep it looking perfectly clean and healthy.

Hygiene is a personal matter of course and the same applies to your cleaning habits with your children. I would be interested to hear what you think about frequency of baths, products you approve of, when you started a daily bath routine with your own children. What are your thoughts on encouraging children to play in the dirt?


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  1. Well I have a few thoughts on this. First, I am a mother/baby nurse and we recommend 1-2 baths a week for babies. I am in agreement with this, like you said they don't get too dirty. I have an almost 4 and 6 year old and they take 2-3 baths in the winter and more in the summer. We live in a very warm climate, and they get very sweaty in the summer playing outside and I think a nice fresh bath just feels good.

    About dirt- I think it is important to play in the dirt such as nature, but like you don't feel like they should play on the ground of heavy traffic areas indoors. Not only do you not know what kind of cleaning products are used, but who knows where people's shoes have been- yuck!

    I am interested to hear if anyone loves a product- I have yet to find soap/shampoo that I like to use for my kids.

  2. My kids shower every other day unless they play sports or it gets very hot. And they smell clean and fresh anyway. Great post. I'm going to Twitter it. Hope you're well.

  3. I have to agree. My two were not given baths every night either. And my pediatrician told me to use olive oil right from the start to keep their skin from getting dry. No chemicals or dyes in it, all natural, and no smell either. Even now, I don't see a need for a shower every day unless it's been a sweaty day. But with teenagers, their hair does get oily fast so washing it every few days is a must.

    Great topic.

  4. I think this is an interesting topic. Our first son gets exzema and so we only used to bath him every other day, but since having two children I find the bath routine helps me get them calm and ready for bed. I alternate a mildly soapy bath with an oil bath for the exzema. I'm all for a bit of dirt, but agree that its nice to remove it at the end of the day (or before eating). However the amount of dog poo in our local park disgusts me (why don't the owners use the dog run areas?) and I feel that I'm constantly moving them away from it, interrupting their play quite often.
    I do think cleaning is addictive though. When walking in the mountains my husband and I have no access to a bath or shower, sometimes for up to six days at a time. (I should perhaps use the past tense, we haven't done this since having children!) Other than hands, feet, faces and private parts we do very little washing unless its warm enough to take a dip in a stream! Wearing marino wool helps I guess, but we don't find it a smelly problem. Back at home we both shower daily, more often if we've done sport, and the house is always clean!

  5. Thanks for the great comments.

    Tiffany - helpful to have your input, especially as you're a nurse working with babies. I agree with you that more baths are needed in the summer when everyone's likely to get more hot, sweaty and dirty.

    Maryse - thanks very much for Twittering my post, I really appreciate it!

    Valerie - thank you for reading and posting a comment. Good point about teenagers!

    Joanna - thanks to you too for some really good insight to the topics in the post. It's interesting to know your routine of bathing your son who has exzema with oil on alternate days. Your comment about our addiction to cleaning is also another good aspect to consider.


Thank you for reading. I'd love to have your comments and thoughts!