Making the Case for Fist Bumps Over High-Fives

fistbump.jpgIf I had to guess, I’d say that my younger son Scrunchy Face does high-fives an average of about four times a day. He doesn’t usually initiate them himself, but when someone — his older brother, a neighbor, a stranger at the grocery store — asks for one, he happily complies, raising his palm, smiling a drooly smile and sometimes even shouting an enthusiastic “Five!”

As cute as it all is, a new study has me questioning if I should start discouraging all the five-ing in favor of another greeting: the fist bump.

The study, out of Aberystwyth University in the U.K., found that out of three common hand-to-hand greetings — hand shakes, high fives and fist bumps — “the fist bump consistently gave the lowest transmission” of bacteria. Handshakes were found to transmit the most bacteria, while high-fives fell in the middle of the spectrum.

The researchers obtained their results after “greeters” immersed sterile-gloved hands into a vat of bacteria and then shook hands, high-fived and fist-bumped other sterile-gloved greeters. The study’s authors recommended that “for the sake of improving public health we encourage further adoption of the fist bump as a simple, free, and more hygienic alternative to the handshake.”

It’s not the first time that the handshake, in particular, has gotten a germy bad rap. A report on the U.K. study, published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Infection Control, comes on the heels of a June op-ed in the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for a ban on handshakes in hospitals. That article also noted lower bacterial transmission through fist bumps.

I’m no germaphobe, but I’m also no fan of waking up in the middle of the night with a sick and cranky toddler. Scrunchy Face doesn’t do handshakes yet, fortunately, but I wondered: If fist bumping transmits however many fewer germs than high-fives, aren’t they worth a try?

I raised the question to a few pediatricians. Their answers, as it turns out, were fairly uniform. When it comes to keeping kids healthy, good hygiene is more important than choosing between hand gestures.

“Viruses rather than bacteria are the biggest issue in transmitting ‘germs’ between children and working harder to keep especially young children from spreading ‘germs’ (again, mostly viruses) by not coughing and sneezing into their hands and washing their hands more frequently is a priority,” Dennis L. Murray, the chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Georgia Regents University and the chair of the American Academy of Physicians Section on Infectious Diseases, wrote to me in an email.

My own pediatrician, Dr. Michael Smith of Tenafly Pediatrics in New Jersey, raises a practical point: Trying to get my toddler to do more fist bumps doesn’t mean that others who cross our path — I’m looking at you, overly friendly lady at the supermarket checkout line! — won’t still try to high-five their way into his heart.

For all the recent popularity of fist bumps — notable fans include President Obama and admitted germaphobe Howie Mandel — high-fives have been the go-to, casual hand-to-hand gesture for decades. That’s another reason why hygiene rules.

“It might be hard to start a cultural revolution rooted in years of tradition,” Smith said, “but if we all take responsibility for cleaning our hands after touching dirty, germy surfaces, or touching others, this will significantly reduce the spread of infection.”

Got your hygiene bases covered but still want your child to do fist bumps? The good news is it shouldn’t be too difficult to teach them. I assumed that babies and toddlers would have a harder time learning how to fist bump — at least in comparison to high-fiving — but Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital, assured me that that’s not the case.

“Infants can learn to make fists at an early age, and when they are old enough to imitate actions (9-12 months), they can be taught to bump fists gently,” she said.

What you don’t want, of course, is for fist bumps to turn into inadvertent fist fights.

It’s important, Spinks-Franklin said, “to teach the difference between a fist bump and a punch, so that children fist bump each other gently.”

I’m still on the fence about whether I am going to encourage fist bumps from Scrunchy Face. If I do, I know it’ll take some practice. Once, a teenage neighbor tried to encourage Scrunchy Face to do a fist bump and my confused little boy simply wrapped his small hand around the teen’s knuckles  a fist hug, if you will.

I should mention that Scrunchy Face likes to give lots of regular hugs, too. I don’t want to imagine what germ researchers would say about that.


Image courtesy of ThinkStock

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