In the ‘90s, there were chicken pox parties. There are studies that prove infants raised in homes with pets (and all the hair and dander they have to offer) are less likely to develop allergies. But we also vaccinate, wash our hands, and wear masks. So, is exposing baby to germs good or bad for their health? It’s an age-old question, and one parents struggle with when asking a sick family member to steer clear of their newborn, or whether it’s worth it to put their little one in day care.
So, are germs good for babies? Pediatricians agree that the best approach is to vaccinate against serious illnesses, and don’t go out of your way to hang out with the kid who has a cold right now. Day-to-day life will build your child’s immune system just fine.
Are germs good for babies?
Do babies need to get sick to build immunity? In the medical world, this is actually called the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that exposure to germs in childhood actually helps a baby’s immune system develop.
“This is a hard question, because it’s true — exposure to germs stimulates our immune system,” says Randolph “Randy” Thornton, M.D., a pediatrician with Jacksonville Pediatrics and Wolfson Children’s Hospital, in an interview with Romper. “As a pediatrician, I would still preach vaccination. As a parent, I would never intentionally expose my child to a germ, but exposure to germs on a day-to-day basis is good. If an illness is not going to be life-threatening or cause misery, we can let the immune system tackle that and evolve on its own.”
Should I expose my baby to germs?
Does exposure to germs build immunity? Yes. Should you go out of your way to take your baby around sick people? Definitely not, according to the experts.
“I wouldn’t intentionally try to expose a baby to germs, and I would not worry about trying to ‘build’ a child’s immune system. This will happen naturally as the child grows up living their daily life,” says Peily Soong, M.D., pediatrician at Children’s of Alabama, in an interview with Romper. “The best way to build a child’s immune system is staying up on their vaccinations, including the flu and Covid-19 vaccines.”
Soong explained that babies and toddlers are often at higher risk for complications from illnesses like the flu, RSV, and Covid. He said that while many kids get these thing and recover well, some will have complications, ranging from ear infections or pneumonia to hospitalization and even death.
“Day to day, from going to school or being out playing, you’ll be exposed to plenty,” Thornton says. He noted that, on average, babies will have eight to 10 colds in their first year of life (and as many as 15 if they’re in daycare). So, yeah, you could say they’ll encounter plenty of germs as it is.
When can I expose my baby to germs?
While purposely exposing baby to germs is not recommended, when is it OK for them to be around other sick kids? For working parents who rely on day care or families with older children already in school, it’s just a matter of time before their baby will come in contact with germs.
“Before 2 months old, if a child is sick with a fever, it’s an emergency,” Thornton says. “I tell parents to stay away from sick children with their newborns, and don’t take them out around crowds of people. That’s the riskiest age, and up to a year is still slightly a risk, but not as great as the first two months.”
“After 2 months of age, we worry much less about babies getting sick,” says Soong. I would strongly encourage vaccinations, which have made things like chicken pox parties a thing of the past. For new parents, I would have people visiting make sure they are not sick and wash their hands before holding a newborn.”
Soong says parents often ask him if it’s OK to put babies in day care when it’s time to go back to work. Short answer: it’s totally fine.
“If you need day care for work or want the socialization aspect of day care, put them in day care. Don’t make a decision based on the potential for illnesses,” he says. “Children that do not attend day care will have more illnesses in elementary school than those that attend day care. You’re deciding whether or not your child gets sick now or sick later.”
How can you build baby’s immune system?
Both pediatricians emphasized the importance of vaccinating for serious illnesses. As for keeping your little one’s immune system working at its best, well, they need the same things grownups do.
“It’s always the big three: eating well, sleeping well, and exercise, which for babies just means letting them be active and get fresh air,” Thornton says. “If we’re run down and exhausted, we get sick. The simple things pay off the most here. If they’re older and are picky eaters, maybe a multivitamin is a good idea.”
So, exposing to baby germs shouldn’t be a priority for parents. Keeping them healthy and handling colds as they come (and they will) is the doctor-approved approach.
Lynch, S. V., Wood, R. A., Boushey, H., Bacharier, L. B., Bloomberg, G. R., Kattan, M., O’Connor, G. T., Sandel, M. T., Calatroni, A., Matsui, E., Johnson, C. C., Lynn, H., Visness, C. M., Jaffee, K. F., Gergen, P. J., Gold, D. R., Wright, R. J., Fujimura, K., Rauch, M., … Gern, J. E. (2014). Effects of early-life exposure to allergens and bacteria on recurrent wheeze and atopy in urban children. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 134(3). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2014.04.018
Peily Soong, M.D., pediatrician at Children’s of Alabama