Our curious little ones love to touch everything—and everyone—around them, so is it any wonder that they’re often getting sick?
With our kids in schools and playgroups, living in such close proximity each day, germs spread like wildfire.
To help prevent the spread of illnesses such as Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease, Hong Kong’s childcare centers are advised to disinfect their toys and surfaces daily.
But how often do you clean your toys at home? Should we be wiping down everything our children touch or are a few germs actually healthy for them?
Can Germs Be Good?
New parents are rightly worried about protecting their babies from germs.
That’s because a baby’s immune system doesn’t mature until they’re two-to-three months old, meaning it’s not very effective at fighting off bacteria and viruses.
But after three months, scientists now believe that exposing your child to germs such as bacteria is actually beneficial in building the immune system.
Infants who are exposed to household bacteria, pet and even cockroach dander (tiny particles of skin) in their first year are less likely to suffer from allergies, wheezing and asthma, a study by the John Hopkins Children’s Center in the U.S. found.
“Our study shows that the timing of initial exposure may be critical,” says study author Dr. Robert Wood, head of the center’s Division of Allergy and Immunology.
“What this tells us is that not only are many of our immune responses shaped in the first year of life, but also that certain bacteria and allergens play an important role in stimulating and training the immune system to behave a certain way.”
Children who were free of wheezing and allergies at age 3 had grown up with the highest levels of household allergens and were the most likely to live in houses with the richest array of bacterial species, the research revealed.
And there’s good news if you clean your baby’s pacifier by sticking it in your mouth—it’s thought exposure to parental saliva can protect infants from allergies. (Although read up on our article about saliva + cavities here).
A study by Sweden’s University of Gothenburg published in Pediatrics journal found infants whose parents sucked on dirty pacifiers had fewer allergies than parents who rinsed or boiled the soother.
At 18 months, the kids of the mouth-cleaners were also 63% less likely to have eczema than their peers and 88% less likely to have asthma.
“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,” the study concluded.
DID YOU KNOW?
The five-second rule is a myth!
Food picks up bacteria as soon as it hits the floor—with wet food such as watermelon being the most absorbent. Carpeted surfaces also transfer more bacteria than tiles.
~ study by Dr. Donald Schaffer, Department of Food Science, Rutgers University, U.S.
The co-author of Dirt Is Good, Professor Jack Gilbert, also found that exposure to daily germs was beneficial.
Faculty Director at The Microbiome Center in Chicago, Prof. Gilbert explains: “Sterilizing your home like a hospital could lead your child to have a severely hyper-sensitized immune system leaving them open to allergies and asthma, even neurodevelopmental problems.”
“Rescue a dog, let them eat food off the floor, play in the soil, dirt is Good!” he adds.
Can Germs Be Bad?
Besides the everyday beneficial bacteria found in the big wide world, there are harmful germs our kids may wish to avoid.
Diseases such as Hand, Food and Mouth, acute conjunctivitis, head lice, scabies and chickenpox are commonly transferred through bacteria by direct body contact or skin particles on items such as towels, combs or clothes.
Viruses are infectious germs that are passed on through contact with bodily fluids from sneezing, coughing, spitting or touching. Examples of viral infections include influenza, colds, bronchiolitis and SARS.
These harmful germs move quickly between children in settings such as playgroups, playgrounds and schools—which is why childcare centers sanitize their surfaces daily.
Plastic toys are a prime host for bacteria, with a recent study showing how respiratory illnesses such as influenza can survive on these non-porous surfaces for up to 24 hours.
Researchers from Georgia State University in the U.S. found the more humid the environment, the longer the virus survived for—increasing the risk of exposure to infectious diseases.
"People don't really think about getting viruses from inanimate objects," says lead author Richard Bearden II.
"They think about getting them from other people,” he adds. “Children are vulnerable to contracting infectious disease because they put their hands and foreign objects in their mouths, and their immune systems aren't fully developed."
The research recommends frequent cleaning and disinfecting of shared toys to stop the potential spread of viruses.
Advice For Cleaning Toys
So although exposure to some germs can be beneficial to our kids, if harmful germs can live on their toys too, you may wish to give them a clean.
But how often? Here’s a quick guide to when you should think about reaching for the cleaning cloth:
- When your child or one of their playmates has been ill.
- If food, milk, vomit or poop gets on a toy.
- If other children have been putting your child’s toys in their mouths.
How to clean your toys
Dirty objects or surfaces will block the effects of a disinfectant, so cleaning toys is a two-step process:
1. Cleaning with soap and water, which removes dirt but doesn't kill germs.
2. Disinfecting the item to remove all germs.
Tips for cleaning your toys at home:
- Disinfect with a bleach-water solution. Childcare centers use a ratio of one-part water to 99-parts household bleach (5.25% sodium hypochlorite). Leave on for two minutes before wiping off.
- For less toxic cleaning, opt for a gentle, hypoallergenic toy spray or sanitization wipes.
- Homemade cleaning solutions can be made using baking soda, liquid soap and vinegar. Wash any residue off with water.
- Plastic toys without batteries can be put in the dishwasher: the combination of water pressure and high temperatures do a good job of removing bacteria.
- Fabric toys can go in the washing machine with your detergent. If you’re worried about harsh chemicals, opt for a child-friendly version instead.
- Stick your fabric toys outside to air-dry after disinfecting them: the UV radiation in sunlight is a natural disinfectant against water-borne bacteria.
- Wooden toys will warp if dunked, so rub with a spray or soapy water. Remove any residue with a damp towel.
- Bath and water toys need to be disinfected regularly too, to avoid a build-up of mold.
- Toothbrushes and toothpicks are great for getting into little dirty crevices.
- It’s not just toys you can think about: you can disinfect any surface that little hands may reach such as toy boxes, markers, door handles etc.
Germs can be good; germs can be bad. Faced with the research, it is your decision whether you clean your kids' toys—and how you clean them.