We’re making lunch plans and my friend suggests we meet with our babies at a cafe in town, because they have a kids room. You know the room — the adult table and chairs, a cheap high chair encrusted with puree, the brightly colored kiddie table and chairs, and the toys.
Lots and lots of previously-sucked-on toys. Toys that my 7-month-old daughter will make out with like a slobbering bulldog.
As my friend and I make our way into the room, she breezily sets down her baby girl, who dives right into the communal toys. I hesitatingly place my baby on the ground, knowing exactly what will come next: She licks the heavily-traveled floor; she sucks on every toy she can get her pudgy hands on; she tries to eat our shoes.
Internally, I am horrified. I want to snatch her up and Purell the hell out of her. But I fight those OCD urges and try to wear the hat of a cool, collected mom. I nod with a weak smile as my friend says, “I guess they’re building up their immunity.”
Why do we let our kids do this? All the wise women I know have always said to go with your gut when raising babies and I am a big believer in intuitive feelings — that sixth sense that always guides me in the right direction (or makes me wish I had). So why am I sitting, sipping on my decaf latte as my sixth, seventh and eighth senses scream at me to stop my baby from sucking on that Duplo block like it’s her first popsicle?
First and foremost, because it’s a losing battle. My daughter finds the sound of a sneeze hysterical and quizzically examines her own hands as if she’s studying an astronomical chart — she doesn’t react to things like we might expect her and the word “No!” might as well be “Go” or “Potato.”
At this point, setting boundaries is like toilet training — a goal for the future. Discipline at this age simply isn’t part of our repertoire (I know some parents may insist that you can start scolding your child at a young age, but that’s not our M.O.). And even if I were to discipline her, it would mean abandoning my adult conversation to hover over my child like a squawking bird yelling “No! No! No!”
Secondly, it’s because there’s actually some merit to the “helps their immunity” theory — it’s not just a way for parents to comfort ourselves. In What To Expect: The First Year, author Heidi Murkoff writes that it’s pretty much impossible to prevent babies from putting everything in their mouths and implores us to remember that “a mouthful of dirt rarely hurts anyone, but even a lick of some cleaners can cause serious damage.” (Note to self: Change “mop floors” on the to-do list to “mop floors with organic cleaner” and add “research natural floor cleaners” to list.)
She makes the point that we should stay vigilant about toxins and choke hazards and not stress so much about germs. Add to that a study published this summer by researchers at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, which found that allergens and germs that children encounter in their first year have a protective effect on the immune system down the road. So while I won’t start serving her lentil-and-avocado puree on the floor, it is good to know that a lot of what she’s exposed to isn’t harming — and could even be helping — her.
Finally, I remind myself that the more I stress, the more I create a negative environment for my family, which I think can do just as much damage to our bodies and minds as some of the bacteria that my baby ingests.
So I relax and let her suck on the toys while I enjoy some time chatting with my friend. I subtly glance over every minute or so to make sure baby isn’t into something that’s potentially seriously hazardous and hope for the best.
And when that inevitable cold comes two days after the cafe visit, which passes from baby to me to husband, well, I just focus on how fantastically strong our immune systems are getting.
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