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Are germs good for children's health?

By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN

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Fourteen-month-old Madison Sukenik eats food off the floor of her father's office.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (CNN) -- Little Madison Sukenik crawls around her Fort Lauderdale home, grabbing everything in sight, putting much of it in her mouth.

A piece of French toast that has fallen on the floor, a ball that her dog, Nugget, just chewed on, a shoe -- all get chomped on.

So are her parents freaked out? Running for the antibacterial mouthwash? No -- Michelle and Mark Sukenik are more than happy to let 14-month-old Madison crawl around the house, restaurants, even her doctor's office, and put her fingers and other objects into her mouth. In fact, Mark is a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist and he says exposure to germs will build up her immunity.

Now some immunology experts are beginning to agree that germs that many parents bleach and disinfect out of existence might help children.

"Hygiene hypothesis" holds that when babies are exposed to germs, it helps them fight allergies and asthma later.

The prevalence of allergies has increased substantially in the past 15 years, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and some experts believe that too much cleanliness might be a contributing factor.

Dr. Dennis Ownby, chief of allergy and immunology at the Medical College of Georgia, found in a study that babies in households with multiple pets have fewer allergies at age 6 or 7 not just to animals, but also to ragweed, grass and dust mites.

Ownby also said studies of babies in day care have found that while they have more infections early, they have fewer allergies and less wheezing later.

The Sukeniks say they know not every parent agrees with their easygoing lifestyle.

Michelle said she used to be a "germaphobe." When her husband would come home and hug Madison wearing the scrubs he had worn all day while treating sick kids, she said she was "mortified."

She was "grossed out" when Mark let Madison eat food right off the floor of his office.

But then she noticed that Madison wasn't getting sick. She didn't get her first cold until she was 13 months old while the children of friends who were meticulously clean were sick many times before their first birthday.

But Kara Sherry of Columbus, Ohio, says her kids are also rarely sick, and she's a self-described "clean freak."

She sanitizes the family's toothbrushes by putting them either in the dishwasher or boiling water.

When she goes grocery shopping, she wipes down the edges of the cart with antibacterial wipes before her children Sam, 3 , and Hayden, 5, climb in.

Her daughter Carleigh, almost 2, sits on a piece of fabric in the front of the grocery cart that covers the handle. Kara said she never touches the handle of a grocery cart, and would never let her children touch it either.

"Anything could be on that handle," she said. "Someone could have gone to the bathroom and not washed their hands, someone could have a cut on their hand. It could be staph, E. coli, it could be anything."

She said she does this out of "love and protection. I look at it as a way, as another way I protect my kids."

Ownby said studies don't show that Sherry is hurting her children, but that anything much more than basic hygiene like hand-washing isn't really necessary.

"It would be more than what I'd be willing to do in my own kitchen," he said.

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