Tuesday, May 07, 2013

When Being Gross Is Good

I don't maintain high standards when it comes to the timely changing of diapers or keeping kids tidy at mealtimes, so I was surprised to discover that parents do something even I think is gross: clean pacifiers by sucking on them.

Photo courtesy of WBUR.

Yes, apparently some moms and dads have no compunction about popping a binky in their mouth and siphoning off any dirt and grime that's collected on it. Um...ew.

It would never even occur to me to do this. Well, before Monday at least. That's when my world was rocked by a new study, which reported that (a) parents do indeed lick pacifiers clean (b) this is a good thing.

From a New York Times story about the research:
In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, scientists report that infants whose parents sucked on their pacifiers to clean them developed fewer allergies than children whose parents typically rinsed or boiled them. They also had lower rates of eczema, fewer signs of asthma and smaller amounts of a type of white blood cell that rises in response to allergies and other disorders.

The findings add to growing evidence that some degree of exposure to germs at an early age benefits children, and that microbial deprivation might backfire, preventing the immune system from developing a tolerance to trivial threats.

The study, carried out in Sweden, could not prove that the pacifiers laden with parents’ saliva were the direct cause of the reduced allergies. The practice may be a marker for parents who are generally more relaxed about shielding their children from dirt and germs, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research.

“It’s a very interesting study that adds to this idea that a certain kind of interaction with the microbial environment is actually a good thing for infants and children,” he said. “I wonder if the parents that cleaned the pacifiers orally were just more accepting of the old saying that you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt. Maybe they just had a less ‘disinfected’ environment in their homes.”
I'm all for exposing the kids to dirt. Hey, I take them on the subway. (In fact, I recall one time when Alice's pacifier fell on the floor of the F train. I used my shirt — not my mouth — to clean it before giving it back to her.)

What's odd is the phenomenon of parents spit-cleaning pacifiers is so widespread that the city felt the need to put up PSAs to warn against the practice. (I learned this in the Times article too, since I've never seen the ads personally.)

"Use water, not your mouth, to clean off a pacifier," one of the PSAs says.

I suppose the city may now have to rethink this message. Personally, I'm going to keep using the edge of my shirt.