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Too Clean for Our Children’s Good?

When a toddler’s pacifier falls out of his mouth and onto the ground, does it get confiscated and boiled by anxious parents or just licked off and reinserted by the more casually inclined?

Many parents, quite reasonably, worry about germs and dirt finding their way into a child’s mouth. But many have also heard in recent years of the “hygiene hypothesis,” which holds that some exposure to germs and microorganisms in early childhood is actually good for us because it helps develop the immune system. A 2013 Swedish study, for example, showed that children whose parents just sucked their pacifiers clean had a lower risk of developing eczema.

When we talk about the hygiene hypothesis, the collection of theories that address the possible problems that can be associated with growing up less exposed to germs and dirt, we are essentially talking about growing up indoors. We’re talking about living in a world of relatively clean and controlled surfaces, where even small children who are constantly picking things up and putting them in their mouths are not going to come into contact with a very wide variety of exposures.


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