Tired But Happy Mom and Germs: Are More Better?

Eleven years ago, when Tired But Happy Mom returned from the hospital with her first baby, she endured the first of many germ-related meltdowns. On the first morning home, she spotted a spider in the corner of the living room. A spider! In the proximity of her vulnerable newborn! Next thing she knew, Oldest Daughter came down with Coxsackie virus, which emblistered the feet, hands, and throat of her 3-month-old little body. Tired But Happy Mom was confident that an older child of a friend had spread the offending virus to her precious babe—and said friend was off the list until that household was germ-free. 

By the time Younger Daughter was born, Older Daughter was in preschool and returned home with all manner of illnesses. First, it was the respiratory flu, which prompted a week-long effort to keep her two-year-old away from the newborn: sealing off rooms, manically washing hands, suctioning out mucous at the slightest sniffle, wiping down every surface with Clorox wipes. In spite of all these precautions, everyone ended up with walking pneumonia and ear infections. Several years later, the swine flu arrived. Don’t ask.

On each of these occasions, Tired But Happy Mom’s own mother tried to console her by saying that exposure to common germs was how young children developed their immune systems. Tired But Happy Mom wasn’t having any of it. She firmly believed that she had the sickest children in the Northeast, and that it was her fault because she was too lame to have protected them adequately. This may well be the case, and at any rate, no one is going to be able to talk her out of it.

But the Harvard Medical School might.

A study recently published by the eponymous institution recently reported that exposing young mice to common microbes the animals were protected from accumulating T cells—and were healthier than those who were not. What researchers say this translates to in human terms is that exposing young mammals to a reasonable number of common germs stimulates their immune systems, preparing said systems not to scream bloody murder when they interface with germs, bugs, viruses, and so on as they get older.

The take-away is that we’ve gotten to be a nation of germaphobes, and that is a bad thing. Scientists, it seems, are becoming increasingly convinced that our preoccupation with antibacterial hand gels and soaps, sterilizing wipes, and wet Swifferizing every available surface may not be such a sound move for our children’s long-term health. Indeed, many researchers believe that the marked upsurge in food allergies, asthma, and sundry immunological diseases is due, at least in part, to cleaning the heck out of everything and our children. The idea seems to run parallel to that of immunization: You give a bit of the disease to give the body a chance to fight it off, so when the big kahuna hits, the defenses are already in place.

It makes sense logically, but it’s hard for Tired But Happy Mom—for every parent—to see their little ones retching and feverish, happy in the knoweldge that such suffering will somehow make them healthier adults. Poor little bubbes! What parent wouldn’t want to spare them these pains? Not only that, but allowing your children to get sick can not only cause serious disruptions at school and work, but also make a lot of other parents, bosses, and co-workers angry.

What to do? Tired But Happy Mom realizes that she has come to reside in something of a middle ground where childhood illness is concerned. She no longer tries to quarantine her sick children from her healthy ones as strictly as she once did. When everyone lives in the same house, shares the same air, bathrooms, and meals, it’s pretty much a given that if one person is sick, everyone is going to get sick.

Just last week, for example, Little Boy had to be picked up from daycare early because he had a stomach bug. Poor baby, he was expelling from both ends, crying miserably, as Tired But Happy Mom and Awesome Dad took turns staying up all night to cuddle him and to make the nonstop wipe downs. Sure enough, 24 hours later, Tired But Happy Mom was sick as a dog, her stomach so intent on voiding itself that she had to camp out for the night on the bathroom floor.

But here’s something interesting. As she has relaxed her germ fears with each successive child, they have gotten less sick. True, Little Boy was horribly sick last week. Then again, it was the first time he’s ever gotten sick.

Tired But Happy Mom is still not down with a devil-may-care attitude about germs. She casts a suspicious eye at public sandboxes and their propensity for harboring impetigo. Go in and play, but be prepared to be wiped down afterwards. Same thing goes for riding public transportation. Foolhardy though it may be, Tired Buy Happy Mom is hedging her bets. 


Tired But Happy Mom is also known as Susan Gregory Thomas, author of In Spite of Everything: A Memoir (Random House: July, 2011) and Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds (Houghton Mifflin: May, 2007). Thomas writes for The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, Marie ClaireParents, and others. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.


  1. Yup, everything I’ve heard & read has said pretty much the same thing – the human immune system is quite competent and if it’s trained from an early age to combat our ambient microbial fauna (flora?) it will do an excellent job keeping a person healthy throughout his life. However, I would urge you not to take this to its illogical extreme and become an antivaccer. There are some diseases that our immune systems have not quite figured out how to handle, and a person is definitely better off if he’s vaccinated against virulent bugs such as polio and pertussis, especially now that these diseases are making a comeback thanks to the efforts of people like Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy.

    • treehousemanager

      Completely agree, Rob! All Tired But Happy Mom’s kids are up on their shots–and have always been–since birth. It wasn’t a decision made lightly, but since the conclusive peer-reviewed research concurs that there is no causal relationship between vaccines and the incidence of autism, there doesn’t seem reason to avoid an ounce of prevention.

      Any dissenters out there?

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