When my oldest son was just an infant, we, like so many other new parents, struggled to get him to sleep for long stretches of time at night. We tried everything, including incorporating a nightly bath as part of the "soothing routine" that so many parenting experts recommend.
And while he seemed to enjoy the routine (especially as he grew older and could play in the tub), his skin did not. He developed rough, itchy patches of skin on his back and legs - a mild eczema that we treated with lotion after each bath.
At the time, I didn't put two and two together, that the constant bathing could be the culprit of his irritated skin. But as the years wore on and our demands grew (namely adding two more little boys to the mix), the nightly bath routine didn't always pan out. Sometimes we ran out of time, other times we were just too exhausted. Then a funny thing happened. During the times our children went for three (or more, I admit) days without a bath, I noticed that our oldest boy's skin seemed healthier and less irritated. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that none of our kids smelled or looked dirty.
Mind you, it's much easier to get away with fewer baths during the winter months when there is less muddy outdoor play.
But I began to wonder, is a daily bath really necessary for little kids? Moreover, do the negative effects of constant cleanliness outweigh the positives? How clean is too clean?
According to Rob Dunn, professor of biology and author of The Wild Life of our Bodies, the medical community has worked relentlessly (and well-meaningfully) to remove as many microbes from our bodies as is possible without living in a plastic bubble, and the overuse of antibiotics, antiseptics, antihelminthics, and pesticides today has the potential to do our bodies more harm than good. He goes on to say that overly clean living can be bad for our immune systems, which need certain microbes and gut bacteria to function properly and to keep us healthy from the more dangerous pathogens.
As a society, we have developed germophobia for a reason. From the 1600s all the way through the 1800s, puerperal fever took the lives of high numbers of women giving birth in maternity institutions, sometimes reaching as high as 40 per cent, all caused by the doctors who attended births with unwashed hands (often right after performing an autopsy in the next room).
With the development of hygienic practices during surgery and childbirth, the occurrence of such infections has all but disappeared, and the few cases that do occur are swiftly eradicated with antibiotics. Clearly we need cleanliness to prevent infection and death, especially in the delicate environment of hospitals and surgery centers. But should we be applying the same rules to our healthy, robust children in day-to-day life?
The answer is no, of course not.
Obviously there's quite a jump between daily bath time and overuse of antibiotics, but I believe it is all closely tied in to a societal mentality of cleanliness. We have become accustomed to antibacterial wipes and gels; parents carry around mini bottles of hand sanitisers and are encouraged to douse their children's hands in the liquid during every public outing. Take a trip to the grocery store and you'll find disposable antibacterial cloths meant for you to wipe down your grocery cart should the filthy person who touched it before you carry some horrible pathogen.
But recent research has shown that those "healthy" antibacterial cleaning wipes contain some pretty scary stuff, including pesticides that are not only dangerous to bacteria, but also dangerous to us, including an array of chemicals that are considered "asthmagens", substances that can cause asthma in otherwise healthy people.
Other concerns include increasing allergies in kids as their immune systems shift away from fighting infections and instead focus inward. Plus, the real kicker is that the FDA recently found that antibacterial products are no more effective than regular soap and water. But there's quite a profitable industry out there advertising the importance of killing all the germs, and we are constantly inundated with the latter message.
But back to the question of bathing. Search for "how often should I bathe my child" and you will find varying opinions: the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that children aged 6 to 11 should bathe at least once or twice a week, or after they have been playing in dirt or mud, have been swimming in a pond, lake, ocean, or pool, or when they get sweaty or have body odour. Others, like pediatrician David Geller, say that a swim in a pool or lake counts as the bath.
For newborns, the story is even less clear. Despite the fact that babies are born with a natural skin protectant which is also full of immune properties (vernix), it is considered routine for hospitals to administer a baby's first bath within hours of the baby's birth. Delaying baby's first bath for at least a couple of days is reasonable; wiping with a wet cloth around the neck and diaper area should be sufficient in keeping baby clean.
It all seems pretty straightforward; wash your kid if he stinks or is visibly dirty, but otherwise we can relax a bit on being clean as a whistle. Wash hands regularly with good old fashioned soap and water and spot clean with a washcloth between baths, and I'm willing to bet everyone will be happier (and healthier). After all, haven't we all heard the saying, "A little dirt doesn't hurt?"