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Rub-a-Dub-Dub, What's in the Tub?

The faithful yellow rubber ducky, memorialized in song by Ernie of Sesame Street fame and a staple in nearly every baby’s bathtub, is housing a dirty little secret. A very dirty one.

You may have already discovered it on your own. You’re giving Junior his daily bath and submerge one of his ducks under sudsy bath water. Air bubbles rush to the surface, as water flows into the duck via a little hole underneath. You pick up the duck, squeeze it, and out spews a stream of brown gunk.

The stuff, which looks like it should be coming from a petri dish instead of a toy your child sucks on, is probably mold. Bath toys are a perfect breeding ground for it. “You have an enclosed space where a few organisms can get in and they don’t get out,” explains Dr. Lyuba Konopasek, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weil Cornell Medical Center and mother of two. “It’s almost like standing water.”

Should You Be Worried?

If you find unidentified dark matter coating your child’s mini sailboat, there’s probably no need to send out an SOS just yet. While moist conditions make a suitable host environment for mold and bacteria (including those that cause staph infections and intestinal and respiratory illnesses), the slimy secretions probably look worse than they really are.

Dr. Paul Williams of Northwest Asthma and Allergy Center and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Allergy and Immunology says, “[Parents] don’t need to be worried in the sense that their child’s health may be harmed by ordinary quantities of mold in the environment. There are thousands of mold spores in the air that we breathe every day. So, in a lot of ways, molds are just a part of our everyday environment and our system handles it quite nicely.”

But what if your child squirts moldy bath water into his mouth from a toy and then swallows it? I know my daughter has slurped down plenty of water despite my repeated warnings to cease and desist. “The likelihood of a child getting sick from this is close to zero,” notes Dr. Konopasek. She compares ingesting mold from a bath toy to accidentally giving your child a piece of moldy bread to eat. It’s just going to come out when the child goes to the bathroom. Dr. Konopasek adds that the only kids who could potentially be at risk are those who have immune problems, or those younger than three months old.

Bathing the Bath Toys

That said, most parents would prefer that their children avoid playing with toys that look as if they’ve been soaking in a cesspool. Dr. Konopasek offers the following tips for cleaning your child’s bath time buddies:

  • “Try washing plastic toys in a mild dish soap with warm water,” suggests Dr. Konopasek. “If it’s good enough for my dishes, then it’s fine for my kids’ toys because they’re all going to go in their mouths.” Dr. Konopasek is hesitant to advise parents to stick bath toys in the dishwasher. In addition to running the risk of the toys melting, she says, “I’m not a fan of getting hot fluid in there and then possibly squirting out and burning your kid.”
  • What if you have a toy like a rubber duck with a hole and there’s mold growing inside? “You need to throw it out. Once that mold is there, it’s time to get a new duck,” says Dr. Konopasek. Next time, you might want to stay away from toys with holes.
  • Wash items such as washcloths and terry cloth hand puppets along with your regular laundry at least once a week.
  • Store bath toys where they can drain, such as inside a mesh bag. Avoid keeping toys in buckets or other receptacles where water can collect. Always drain toys between baths.
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