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Kids eating off the floor: Is the ‘5-second rule’ worth the risk?

When it comes to raising children, a parent’s clean compass soon changes direction

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

From scrubbing and sterilizing baby bottles to within an inch of their existence to letting their toddlers eat food off the floor – when it comes to raising children, a parent’s clean compass soon changes direction.

Indeed, for those who used to panic if their little one so much as lifted the grubby looking toy at nursery to their mouths, it’s strange they feel so relaxed about their health now.

Nevertheless, it’s something almost all mums and dads do. Many believe this exposure to germs is what builds up children’s immune systems and others are physically incapable of keeping a boisterous two-year-old clean 24/7.

But a hygienist in Britain recently told the Daily Mail newspaper how potentially lethal bacteria could rapidly ‘colonise’ fallen food.

Doctor Lisa Ackerley warned that these silent killers multiply from a single bacterium to several million in just seven hours.

With the three most worrying forms of infectious bacteria lurking on the floor being E.coli, staphylococcus, aureus (S aureus) and salmonella, it’s enough to have parents dashing for the disinfectant.

But Doctor Mohamed Abdulrahman, the Medical Director at Dubai’s Mediclinic Welcare Hospital advises us not to get too scared.

While he admits infectious diseases are a legitimate cause for concern, he fears that parents can go overboard when it comes to protecting children from germs.

He explains: “Research suggests that exposing infants to germs at an early age may offer them greater protection from illnesses later on in life. This line of thinking, called the ‘Hygiene hypothesis’, holds that when exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses is limited early in life, children face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases during adulthood.”

Research carried out in the UK has revealed that while some bacteria get transferred to food as soon as it lands on the floor, it takes time for them to transfer in enough numbers to cause illness.

That’s one of the reasons Doctor Abdulrahman advises parents to trust their own judgement when it comes to dirt.

“Definitely don’t let your kids eat off the floor in a public place like an airport or shopping centre. Even if something spends a mere millisecond on the floor, it attracts bacteria. How dirty it gets depends on the food's moisture, surface geometry and floor condition – not time. If at home evaluate the situation. As a parent your will know when to say no. And don’t start serving food on the carpet to save you washing up either!”

As a self-confessed ‘germaphobe’, South African mum Leandra Meintjes says she has done her best to control her need to clean her two children. Thus she uses the ‘five second rule’ (allowing them to eat food that has been on the floor for less than five seconds) to allow them some exposure to germs.

She says: “We decided that once the kids turn one they are old enough to fight germs on the floor. With Dylan we really stuck to this but with our second born Willow, we went down to eight months. If you think about it, they are crawling everywhere and you don’t wash their hands every five seconds and she definitely sticks those in her mouth.”

When it comes to exposing children to germs, teacher and Dubai-based mum of two Lyndsey Roberts believes it’s better for a child to get dirty than to stay squeaky clean.

She says: “Our toddler Sophie is our second child and if you combine that with my age I think I'm much more easy-going this time. She ate an ant off the floor once at a play date and the other parents were panicking but we are super laid back.

“When she goes to the park she swims in the sand - we let her get it everywhere! Kids need to get dirty and have sensory experiences to develop the brain cognitively. I can see the ones in class that have not had those chances and it's sad. It has such a huge effect but people often don't know this.”

Russian mum of one Gulnara Newbould echoes Lyndsey’s sentiments and explains how different cultures respond to germs: “I have been taking my son to the beach since he was four months old. I let him play with sand and if he drops his biscuit he surely will pick it up.

“I like the British view of how to build a kid's immune system as well. Most of the Russian moms think it's a tragedy if their child gets a runny nose or cough – they’ll take them to the doctor immediately and ask for some medication. It’s also a rule for many if their child has a runny nose not to bring them to play areas to avoid interaction with other kids. Also when babies are just born, friends and relatives are not welcome to visit for the first few weeks to avoid spreading diseases. I absolutely don't agree with that.”

At the end of the day, were our parents obsessed with cleanliness when we were young? It’s unlikely.

“All the sterilising didn't happen when we were kids and none of us died of a communicable disease,” says British mum Imogen Lilywhite.

“To be honest, unless Esme looks like she's about to eat something that's actually poisonous, I tend not to worry and I think there's too much pressure on mums to hold themselves to some ridiculously high standard.”

YOU NEVER WOULD'VE DONE IT TO A NEWBORN:

Those of us who have children probably started out with such high standards but they soon lower as a child grows up. We asked a few parents for their ‘we never thought we’d let him do that’ secrets!

-Leandra Meintjes: “One of the things I vowed I would never do was only wash my kids’ hair twice a week. But they hate washing hair so now to my horror we do it only twice a week. I hear lice like clean hair though so we are safe.”

-Eva Hall: “Before I had a baby I used to hate seeing children walking around with snotty noses. Now I have a daughter I completely understand it. Unless I wipe her nose every five minutes it is runny so if she’s playing and happy and I can’t keep pulling her in to wipe it I let her have a snotty nose. Awful but true!”

-Joanne Thornhill: “We have the five second rule and the other day my son Rosco picked up a crisp in the car which had been there a few days, blew it then ate it. I had to laugh as I’m not sure where he got that idea from but it's definitely something we did as kids. We also had an impromptu trip to the park the other after I had picked both boys up from school and nursery and as such didn't have spare nappies with me. I realized Bailey had done a poo however we did have another 10 minutes on the park and get an ice lolly as I'd promised and ate it by the lake as didn't want the mess in my car. It was only after that when we headed home and I changing his bum. He didn't seem bothered and we did leave earlier than expected. He would have been more upset at leaving than the poop in his nappy!”

-Sam Fewtrell: “My daughter constantly picks her nose - yuck I know, but I can’t seem to stop her. She also eats off the floor whenever food falls on it and she is as strong as an ox.”