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?