Messy play is beneficial to developing immunity in children and our obsession with cleanliness is having a negative effect. Professor Brett Finlay and Dr Marie-Claire Arrieta insist there is undeniable evidence that early exposure to microbes is beneficial to children. The scientists wrote a book, Let Them Eat Dirt, to explain their conviction.

Modern living is too clean

“In our quest to clean up our world and get rid of infectious diseases, we have become too clean” stresses Prof Finlay.”We don’t directly advise ‘eating dirt’ but we now realise kids depend on microbial exposure to develop normally. This is especially important early in life.” Without this exposure children are at increased risk of allergies, asthma, obesity and diabetes later in life.

Most microbes not harmful

While some microbes can cause infections only about 100 are known to cause human disease. “The majority of microbes do not cause any problems and many come with serious benefits,” the experts say. One theory suggests lack of exposure to bacteria during childhood may be the cause of a rapid increase in allergies. This is thought to be because it prevents proper development of the immune system.

Use antibiotics with caution

The pair point out that as well as increased cleanliness reducing childhood exposure to microbes there are other causes for concern. This is primarily the “overuse and abuse” of antibiotics. Although antibiotics are “wonder drugs” experts advise they should only be used when necessary for a bacterial infection. When given in the first years of life they can wipe out the good microbes which train the immune system.

Benefits of messy play

According to experts messy play is a safe way for children to gain exposure to microbes and build immunity. “Letting a kid play in the dirt isn’t necessarily bad. Living in an extremely clean environment is not how we have evolved as a species.” Great news for children, possibly less so for the parents who have to clean them up!

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