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I have a very curious 10 month old daughter who and touches and examines everything.

I'd like to take her to a small national park and show her trees, bark, and pieces of wood and rocks on the beach. I'd like to let her sit on the grass, play in the small forest, play on the beach (rocks about palm/hand sized), etc.

My baby puts things in her mouth.

Is it ok if the baby picks up a rock, a leaf, or a piece of wood and examines it with her mouth (of course I'd make sure the item is big enough so she can't ingest it and that the item does not show any signs of containing or being covered with harmful substances.)

What are the benefits this kind of mouthing of objects? What are the disadvantages? Are there any dangers for the baby in doing what I described?

  • At the moment this question is quite broad. Is there a specific reason why you feel there should be a problem with taking your child somewhere you'd quite happily go to for example? Knowing this might help us to give you a more useful answer. – James Snell Dec 13 '15 at 13:37
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    @JamesSnell - see parenting.stackexchange.com/q/23296/9327 – anongoodnurse Dec 13 '15 at 17:51
  • @anongoodnurse - that explains a great deal. Thanks. – James Snell Dec 13 '15 at 19:29
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    I feel compelled to point out that for the first 50 millenia of our species' existence, every generation of children grew up "in nature" from the very start of their lives. Insulating them from the outdoors has only been possible for the last century. – Crashworks Dec 14 '15 at 4:00
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    @Crashworks and look what's happened in that century cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/figures/m4838a2f1.gif – Pete Kirkham Jan 19 '16 at 15:54
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Generally speaking anywhere that you can go, your 10-month-old can go too. So really it's about weighing up risk and reward, a task which absolutely lacks black and white distinctions.

Obviously if you're letting them explore at all then you need to be aware of your surroundings and your child's capabilities; for example if there are any trip hazards or anything they might fall on which might hurt them. It's also worth making sure you're prepared for the trip with things you might not normally carry in case of any minor mishaps, a towel if you plan to get wet, things like that.

Soil/dirt and just about anything you find anywhere contains all sorts of microbial life which you cannot see, so a visual inspection may not be that useful and while touching it is ok, I'd discourage them from eating it. Some of that life is bad for us (like Toxocara as mentioned in another answer is rarely a serious problem) but some is highly beneficial to us. Regular exposure to a wide range of microbial fauna, while carrying a risk of illness, also results in improvements to the immune system which will obviously benefit them in later life.

Rocks, grass, a bit of tree bark... the whole world is full of wonder and on balance the benefits more than outweigh the risks. If you spent every day worrying about the risks then you're never going to get any pleasure in life.

Enjoy the park!

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    Just be aware that some wood/bark, a lot of berries, etc is poisonous so is best to avoid. – Tim B Dec 14 '15 at 13:24
  • I think we can safely file that under "I'd discourage them from eating it." but thanks for the feedback. – James Snell Dec 14 '15 at 20:05
  • @JamesSnell With higher toxicity plants "discouraging them from eating it" might not quite be enough. There's a fair amount of reasonably common plants for which licking them or even just touching them (think poison ivy, giant hogweed ) might have serious consequences for a small child. – DRF Jun 5 '17 at 4:41
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In general you should try to make sure the items a child puts in their mouth are somewhat clean. This doesn't mean "sterile". A single accidental chewing will be low risk, but repeated chewings of different items increases the risk.

You ask about risks, so here's a list:

  1. The item might be carrying a parasite. One common parasite (common in domesticated dogs and cats, but also present in foxes) is the toxocara worm. This can cause serious illness. Washing hands before eating is a good idea.

    A U.S. study in 1996 showed that 30% of dogs younger than 6 months deposit Toxocara eggs in their feces; other studies have shown that almost all puppies are born already infected with Toxocara canis. Research also suggests that 25% of all cats are infected with Toxocara cati.

    If people walk their dogs in this national park you should make sure the child does not eat any dirt.

  2. The item might be toxic.

  3. The child might be allergic to the item (although this is unlikely).

It's probably not a good idea to let the child use her mouth to explore stuff when she's at a national park.

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    Note that the OP doesn't indicate their location, while what parasites are common would obviously be highly location-specific. – a CVn Dec 14 '15 at 9:43
  • @MichaelKjörling that's a very good point! – user19912 Dec 14 '15 at 9:53
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    +1 for the toxocara warning. Also it stays viable long after the pile of poop has disappeared, so any area where dogs are frequently exercised needs to be treated with caution. I suggest liberal use of hand sanitiser would be a good idea. – Paul Johnson Dec 14 '15 at 21:53
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I think this is a great idea. Although I'm not near a national park, generally speaking it's not much different than letting them play in the backyard. Doctor's typically recommend a certain amount of sun exposure for infants anyway, vitamin D, etc.

If you're going to supervise her, which of course you will, then let her have a ball. I wouldn't recommend she put anything in her mouth, but just being outside and touching everything and seeing the different colors, textures, etc will be plenty of stimulation. The safety implications can range, strictly speaking their diet shouldn't consist of 'people food' if I recall correctly, so at the very least you'd be violating that rule should she ingest anything and decide to 'live off the land'.

Also, don't forget to tell her everything she is touching with plenty of adjectives(i.e., "Look at the green leaf, isn't it sticky? Wow see the soft brown dirt? Isn't this pink worm squishy?) That stuff really sticks. I still don't know how my 3 year old knows all the animals she does.

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    "Isn't this pink worm squishy?" Ouch... I hope one might use the opportunity to teach gentleness and respect for life, too. ;-) – anongoodnurse Dec 13 '15 at 23:55
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    Absolutely, I was wondering if anyone was going to catch that, perhaps squirmy is a better adjective :-) – MDMoore313 Dec 14 '15 at 0:24
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    Makes me feel better, anyway! :D – anongoodnurse Dec 14 '15 at 0:26
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    Mental -1 for squishy. – a CVn Dec 14 '15 at 9:46
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We started taking our daughter on hikes when she was about 3 months old.

Seriously, the most danger is the drive to/from the park and sun burn (getting a kid to wear sunglasses is hard, but a very good idea--essential if you are at elevation, along with a hat). A child w/o sunglasses can burn their cornea in a half hour of playing in the snow at 6,000' and it hurts.

I wouldn't loose too much sleep over toxocariasis if you clean hands before eating, try to limit the amount of dirt/dog-cat-fox feces they eat. Toxocara varies by where you live. The parasite doesn't develop in soil <10°C, and temps below -15°C kill them. If you live in a warm, moist part of the US, then the risk is much greater than for those of us living up north or out West where there isn't enough moisture in the soil for the eggs to develop.

If you are swimming with them, don't let them drink the water. Giardia is very common any place humans have been, and makes life hard for those contracting it as well as those who have to change their diapers.

Insects are a bigger risk than eating dirt (or even dog poop) in most parts of the US. Read about the proper insect repellent for use in children your daughter's age (avoid DEET; you might treat their clothing and some netting with permethrin.)

  • Hi and welcome to the site! This addresses a lot of concerns not expressed by the OP; as a Q&A site (unlike forums you might be more familiar with), answers are better if they are addressing the OP's question directly (that's the reason for the edit; it certainly has a lot of helpful information for a different question! ^_^) You might like to have a look at the site tour and visit the help center for tips on how to best use this site. Again, welcome! – anongoodnurse Dec 14 '15 at 0:50
  • @anongoodnurse Maybe I misread OP but they seem to be asking about risks from the child putting things in her mouth, and this answer gives a list of risks, and puts those in a context that allows OP to decide how severe those risks are. – user19912 Dec 14 '15 at 9:57
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I can't comment on the question of mouthing objects, but I can add something about exposure to nature. Recent evidence has found that allergies are often caused by children being raised in sterile environments. Consider the following article from 2010:

The study, by Guy Delespesse, a professor at the University of Montréal Faculty of Medicine, linked the trend to the sterile environment created by the cleaning habits of today.

Allergies can be caused by family history, air pollution, processed foods, stress and smoking, but Prof Delespesse said a lack of bacteria in the world around us may be the biggest factor.

"There is an inverse relationship between the level of hygiene and the incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases," says Prof Delespesse, who is also director of the Laboratory for Allergy Research at the University of Montréal. "The more sterile the environment a child lives in, the higher the risk he or she will develop allergies or an immune problem in their lifetime."

In 1980, 10 percent of the Western population suffered from allergies. Today, it is 30 percent. In 2010, one out of 10 children is said to be asthmatic and the mortality rate resulting from this affliction increased 28 percent between 1980 and 1994.

But we have since gained a more nuanced understanding of the issue. The "old friends" hypothesis is that allergies are an immune system dysfunction, caused by a lack of exposure to the microbial biodiversity humans evolved alongside as grassland hunter gatherers. Thus, people living in developed nations (especially urban) have more allergies and less diverse gut bacteria, and inversely people living in less developed nations (especially rural) have less allergies and more diverse gut bacteria.

"The good news," says Professor Bloomfield "is that we aren't faced with a stark choice between running the risk of infectious disease, or suffering allergies and inflammatory diseases. The threat of infectious disease is now rising because of antibiotic resistance, global mobility and an ageing population, so good hygiene is even more vital to all of us." [viii]

"How we can begin to reverse the trend in allergies and CID isn't yet clear," says Professor Rook.[ix] "There are lots of ideas being explored but relaxing hygiene won't reunite us with our Old Friends -- just expose us to new enemies like E. coli O104."

"One important thing we can do," says Professor Bloomfield, "is to stop talking about 'being too clean' and get people thinking about how we can safely reconnect with the right kind of dirt."

Furthermore, it seems likely that the "critical window" where exposure to microbial diversity is preventative is actually as early as the first 100 days of life. But it's not just about rolling about in a park, other sources of microbial diversity have a positive impact too. Like having a dog. Newborns from families with dogs were much less likely to develop certain allergies.

The bottom line is that if you want to give your child a life threatening allergy, then refusing to expose them to nature is probably a good way to achieve that. To help prevent this, exposure to nature in the first few months also appears to be a good idea.

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