A group of new parents invited me over for a chat to caution them on the likely mistakes they may commit in their overzealous parenting. I started browsing through my memory, case studies and lists where all I failed in correcting bad parenting practices…
The case that came-up first was of a well-educated (science stream) lady, who knew too much about health and medicine (her brother was a dentist). Today, Googleji does the job. She had a son who was of small built and used to get repeated infections. When she gave birth to her second son, she went overdrive in preventing the second one getting from getting any infections.
She literally went in a ‘sterilization mode’; her nursery was, kind of, converted to an Intensive Paediatric care unit; every visitor to her house had to wash hands before they were allowed to pick up the child; no one was allowed to hold the child beyond few minutes; no cuddling; no peck on the cheek. Her maid had to bathe after reaching the house before handling the child. When the child started crawling, a 6’ X 6’ section would be demarcated on the floor, which was disinfected every 3 hours; each toy was washed daily and then kept only on the sterilized place. If the medicine was to be given each time the spoon would be boiled and used. When she would bring the child to the clinic, she would bring a sterile sheet, spread it on my couch and then put the child on that; she would get her own thermometer (this was pre-HIV era) and tongue depressor as mine may give cross infection.
I tried explaining to her about how immunity develops from innocent / sub clinical exposure to germs/ viruses etc. I tried telling her that world is NOT sterile; her son will not get this sterile environment always. This child has to survive in this ever worsening environment and that she may regret it later. I failed miserably in convincing her to change her ways.
All my pleas of stopping to sterilize the child’s environment by using antibacterials and of letting her son play with other kids in the ground (may be in garden dirt at times) fell on deaf ears. Her husband (a nuclear scientist) also tried telling her that kids need to adapt to the germs in the world they live in. They need to fall sick and get well WITHOUT antibiotics if possible (since she knew a lot she would start drugs on her own). We both tried convincing her that exposure to the environment helps build a resistant immune system.
The child had not even tasted a potato wafer till he was ten years. Sadly the immensely protected upbringing gave him a weak immune system. Naturally she could not continue this for long (and thankfully too). The child could not eat anything from out, would get diarrhoea or dysentery very often Slightest aberration in diet would give him a sore throat/ cough. This child did not fall sick more in first 6-7 years but later was even sicker than the elder brother. He went outstation for studies after 18 years of age and the family moved out. He still cannot tolerate difference in environment when the family comes to India.
We maintain that a child learns best from the environment. If parents fight around the child, child feels fighting is accepted if you want others to listen to you. Similarly, our environment trains child’s immune system to face the evils with minimal damage. We have an amazing immune system which we should nurture and use.
Dr Chander Asrani, father to three daughters and grand father to one, is a post-graduate in Family Medicine. He has over 35 years in clinical practice, launched www.growingwell.com in 2000 and since then has been writing on various subjects. Know more about him at about.me/drasrani.