Dirt: It's Good for Kids!

By Janelle Sorensen
posted with permission

DrMomma Preface: Please note that "healthy dirt" is not the same as fecal matter or contaminated raw meat which the body cannot develop an immunity for and are often filled with bacteria that are not beneficial to consume in any amount. There is a difference between letting kids 'get dirty' playing around (even putting it in their mouth) and not worrying about keeping the house spotless vs. having contaminated raw meats and fecal droppings where babies and small children can become infected. So continue to wash your hands well after changing a poopy diaper or using the restroom. Clean up the counter and your hands after handling raw meats. And go romp around at the park or the beach - but be sure to pick up after your dog! ;)

Danelle's son, 9 months old, helping to weed the raspberry patch on a hot and sticky day

I don’t know how to say this without sounding crazy, so I’m just going to be blunt. When I was a child, I liked to eat pebbles and stones. Well, technically I didn’t eat them, just sucked on them. Yes, I was a closet rock sucker. Away from the judging eyes of friends and family, I secretly relished their earthy, mineral flavor.

I’m sure, like any mother, my own mom would have been considerably horrified at the idea of her small child sucking on dirty rocks from God knows where. And, while my strange appetite persisted from about ages 4-7, almost all parents have witnessed their younger babies or toddlers shove an ample handful of dirt or sand into their mouths. Probably on more than one occasion.

What is it about kids and dirt? Why the deep mysterious magnetism? According to Mary Ruebush, PhD, author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, the attraction is for our own human good. And, the great news is, it’s a match made in heaven. Just like any other muscle in our body, the immune system needs to be exercised in order to fully develop and become strong enough to resist illness and disease. Eating dirt as a child turns out to be the ideal training to build your immune system’s overall fitness.

We’ve written about the Hygiene Hypothesis and the overuse of antimicrobials in the past, but Ruebush, professor of microbiology and immunology for Kaplan Medical, really brings it home. Her detailed description of the immune system is not only extremely informative, it’s also surprisingly entertaining. Really! She has these delightfully silly pictures of blood cells and bacteria that had my kids peering over my shoulder, giggling, and asking what the book was about. And, the writing is equally as comedic and engaging. She writes about viruses gettin’ busy making baby viruses, macrophages burping up crumbs of their meals, and T-cells going to school and taking final exams.

The main points of the book are simple: let kids eat dirt and don’t overuse antibiotics. According to Ruebush:

Mother Nature has given you the elements to build a strong immune system, but you have to put it into action and take care of it. A strong immune system gets built up by plenty of exercise – that’s why you need a lifetime exposure to plenty of dirt. Your healthy immune system is your savings account for a healthy retirement. If you constantly make withdrawals and live with a negative health balance due to too much stress, too little rest, and too many chemicals, you will arrive at a point where you have no reserves for any catastrophic illness that might lurk in your future. A lifestyle that gives you the food, rest, exercise, and other elements you need for basic good health contributes to a healthy immune response and increases the likelihood of a long, productive life.

Sounds like the perfect prescription to me! So, relax. Let your kids get dirty. Stop trying to sanitize every square inch of your home. And, unwind with a good book (like Why Dirt is Good). It’ll make your whole family healthier and happier.

P.S. My childhood affinity for sucking rocks was likely pica, a medical disorder that can make people hungry for non-food items. Turns out, I’m slightly anemic, so my body was craving iron and hoping to get it from the mineral content of rocks. Pica is not uncommon in children and pregnant women. If you or your child are craving non-food items, talk with your midwife, nutritionist, or physician.

Janelle Sorensen writes for Healthy Child, Healthy World


  1. I craved dirt during my pregnancy and fed the desire with Redmond clay. I also enjoyed the taste of sand and rocks when I was a kid... probably up to age 12.

    One question though: Is it a bad idea for baby/toddler to CHEW on rocks? The sound is grating, but I don't know if it's actually harmful to my kid's teeth or not.

  2. My little one loves rocks, dirt, grass, leaves, sticks....you name it,everything seems to go in the mouth! Alot of it much to my horror but completely agree that a little bit of dirt never hurt anyone!

  3. clean kitchen floors never shine like dirty happy kids :) this is great!!!

  4. Love this! I'll get the book, several copies for friends, too :^) I had exactly the same pica as a child and when pregnant. Thanks for posting this!

  5. we have the whole fun in dirt thing down pact here...I will share this one for sure...

  6. I was just talking about this yesterday with my friends. They didn't get what I was talking about. I will have to check out this book! Thanks!!

  7. Ha! I have a 3 year old rock-sucker! lol

  8. I don't panic about my granddaughter sucking on stones etc.. With her being 16 months old, its all about adventure, discovery and learning, so i try to not interfere with her process too much.

  9. I love when I see a ring of dirt around my baby's mouth when I pick him up from daycare. I was never an outdoorsy type although someday I hope to have a beautiful garden. If he is eating dirt now hopefully he wont mind doing all of the yard work and landscaping at my home in the future :O) Also whatever makes him happy is fine with me

  10. WOW! Thank you so much for this post. My boyfriend gets so angry that I let DS play in sand and/or dirt and dont say much when he sticks it near his mouth. He says he is going to get sick and die...well I am sooo showing him this!

  11. My 13 month old is a rock sucker and loves dirt and anything outside for that matter. Of course, the biggest challenge we have is making sure he picks rocks he can't shove in his mouth. All 3 of our kids are nature kids!

  12. @Arual

    Chewing rocks probably serves the same purpose as teeth grinding in babies/toddlers. They grind their teeth because they're gums hurt, and some dentists suggests it helps align their teeth properly.

    You're supposed to take your child to the dentists at 12 months of age or 6 month after the eruption of their first tooth. However if you ask most family dentists they will tell you that kids don't need to see a dentist until age 3 -when the truth is really that family dentists don't treat kids until age three. Honestly I don't know what would compel someone to be a pediatric dentists because its a pretty thankless job, but they will see kids from birth.

    So go to the dentist and see if your child is chewing them hard enough to cause damage and if it is then you can consider trying to prevent it, or at least repair the damage periodically. Ultimatly though they are just baby teeth and will be replaced.

    Like sucking on pacifiers and thumbs, grinding the teeth (called bruxism) is a common habit that usually disappears on its own as young children grow. The two peak periods of bruxism are as the baby teeth arrive in very young children and again at 5 or 6 as the permanent teeth begin to come in. Grinding could slowly damage the enamel of the teeth, but the baby teeth do not remain in place long enough for that to be a concern. The habit usually stops long before permanent damage to the adult teeth occurs.

    Why does my toddler grind his teeth?

    Experts don't know for sure what causes teeth grinding, but they point fingers at tension or anxiety, pain (from earaches or teething, for example), and malocclusion (a dental term for when the teeth don't line up just right). Some also suggest that allergies may play a role. And there's some evidence that pinworms are sometimes the culprit. Finally, your toddler may just be getting used to the sensation of having teeth in his mouth.

    Your child is a bit more likely to grind his teeth if you do. He's also more likely to grind if he drools or talks in his sleep.

    About 38 percent of children grind their teeth, according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Dentistry for Children. The average age for starting the habit is around 3 1/2 years and the average age for stopping is 6 — though, of course, people of all ages grind their teeth. Almost all teeth grinding happens at night.
    Is it bad for him?

    In most cases, teeth grinding isn't harmful. It's very unlikely that your toddler's doing any damage to his teeth, and it's very likely that he'll soon outgrow the habit. Mention it to his dentist, though, so she can check the teeth for wear and any resulting problems, like pulp exposure, cavities, and fractures.

    Can I do anything to help him stop?

    Although the noise is probably disconcerting, most likely you'll just have to wait for your toddler to grow out of it. In the meantime, it won't hurt to work on a soothing bedtime routine — maybe a leisurely soak in the tub, a little back rub, or extra cuddling in the rocking chair. If he's teething or has an ear infection, consider giving him the proper dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease the discomfort.

    Older children are sometimes fitted with a night guard — a plastic device fitted to the mouth to prevent clenching and grinding of the teeth during sleep. But your child's dentist probably won't consider this an option until your child has at least some permanent teeth, around age 6.

  13. My only issue with this? Our property has lead contaminated soil :(

  14. My younger brother used to eat dirt all the time. We would come outside and see his mouth and cheeks covered with dirt and ask him if he had been eating it again, to which he always said, "No."

  15. So my mom who always said, "you've got to eat a peck of dirt before you die" may have really been right? My friend Chris, wife of a family doctor, says that her kids who grew up on a sheep farm had far better immune systems than most of the kids whose moms were fanatical about using anti-bacterial soap all over the place. My kids who also grew up with all sorts of farm animals (my son used to play with the chickens in their yard when he was 3) also seem to have healthy immune systems. Of course all four of these kids were also breastfed...

  16. I love that you are getting this message out to others. I have long complained about our society's overuse of "antibacterials" and our constant obsession with trying to "be clean" thinking this will make us healthier. As an MD, I know the importance of being exposed appropriately to our environment so that our immune system can develop early and heartily. Thanks again. I'm loving your blog!

  17. Ok. It's final. When the kids are in bed, I'm watching a movie and catching up on my blog. Forget mopping!

  18. I had pica with my first son where I wanted to eat dishwasher powder (I obviously did not indulge but did rub it between my hands occasionally.) With my second son it was pretty much any cleaner, body wash, laundry soap.. He is 9 months old and I still want to suck on dryer sheets when I see them in the store. We had to do away with a lot of cleaners just to make my life easier, not to mention it made our house healthier anyhow.

  19. I'm a big advocate of playing outside and getting dirty. But, I'm a little uneasy about Valley Fever, which comes from our dirt here in Arizona, pesticides and hookworms out in public.

  20. I don't have an issue with all the dirt, my issue is how to get the clothing clean! LOL

  21. @nursinmamaa....
    Each of my boys (ages 2 and 5) have a drawer of "play clothes". My husband knows that any item in those drawers can be completely thrashed with no consequences! I love when he texts me photos of my boys covered in mud from head to toe. The stains don't come out very well, but those photos are my favorites, and the memories are priceless for my kids.

  22. I took my son to the beach of a lake awhile ago and he decided to lick his hand that was covered in sand. I just had to keep telling myself "It's building his immune system, it's building his immune system". I was just talking to my friend the other day and said that kids are more likely to get sick from all the sanitizers that people use than the dirt that is on the toys they are putting in their mouths.

  23. I think my Aunty needs to read this. As soon as you walk into her house it smells like chlorine...

  24. I am always preaching about " Being familiar with your surrounding bacteria" I love being right! I was a pretty dirty, and healthy kid!

  25. My pedi suggested dirt therapy to promote a healthy immune system!

    A friend advised that every child would be better off if they ate a wheelbarrow full of dirt before kindergarten...

  26. I definitely had pica too as a kid, and even a little bit into my teens. For me though it was wood and paper, so I wonder what that means?

    One other thing to consider in all of this is how clean/healthy the dirt around your home is. If your building is older than 1979 there might be a high lead content in the soil, and kids have ended up in hospitals from this. Also, be sure to consider use of pesticides/chemicals in the yard.

    Otherwise, I love letting my little guy get dirty. I believe it is not only good for his immune system, but also for his development and learning to love nature and to explore. I have also relaxed my housekeeping a LOT since he was born, knowing that germ exposure (moderate) is good for him.



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