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Sucking your baby’s dummy clean may be good for their health

Parents who ‘clean’ their babies’ dummies by sucking them may be helping to protect their children against eczema, asthma, and other allergies, a new study suggests.
By Grant Stewart

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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In the last hundred years or so, people in developed countries have lived much ‘cleaner’ lives. We are more aware of how germs can spread, and how washing our hands and preparing food safely can stop us becoming ill. But is it possible to be too clean? Many scientists now think so.

Small children, especially new babies, need protection from dangerous infections. But too much protection can stop babies’ immune systems from developing. For example, allergens are harmless microscopic proteins that can enter our bodies through our lungs or mouths. We know that babies exposed early in life to a greater variety of allergens, germs, and other types of microbes are less likely to get asthma, eczema, and allergies. So a home that’s too hygienic or sterile may actually give less protection to babies than one that has a more normal level of dirt and grime about the place.

One way that parents spread germs and other microbes that live in their mouths and guts to their babies is through dummies. If a baby drops a dummy, some parents wash it under a tap, or even in boiled water, while others suck it ‘clean’ in their own mouths.

In the new study, researchers wanted to find out whether sucking a baby’s dummy to clean it, and spreading the parent’s germs to the baby that way, was actually helping the baby’s immune system get stronger. They asked the parents of about 180 new babies in Sweden to keep detailed diaries about the first 18 months of their babies’ lives, including information about whether their babies had dummies, and how they cleaned them. The researchers then looked at how many of the babies had developed asthma and eczema.

What does the new study say?

Babies whose parents sucked their dummies were about three times less likely to get eczema than those whose parents washed their dummies in tap water or boiled water. They were also less likely to get asthma.

Children whose parents sucked their dummies were no more likely to get colds and other chest infections than those whose parents used a more sterile method of cleaning their dummies.

How reliable is the research?

A study like this - especially one that’s quite small - can usually only show a link between things. It can’t usually tell us that one thing definitely causes another. For example, the researchers suggested that one reason for these results might be that parents who suck their babies’ dummies clean have a more relaxed attitude to dirt and germs in general. So their babies could have been more exposed to microbes in many ways, not just from their dummies.

What does this mean for me?

The idea that very clean surroundings can do babies more harm than good (the so-called ‘hygiene hypothesis’) has gained a lot of ground with scientists in recent years. So older relatives who wave away concerns about germs, saying things like ‘you eat a peck of dirt before you die’, may have been onto something all along.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have to show common sense about hygiene. But the next time someone says you shouldn’t ‘clean’ your baby’s dummy by popping it in your mouth, you can be pretty sure you aren’t doing them any harm, and you may even be doing them some good.

Published on May 10, 2013

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