How Often Should You Wash Your Newborn's Bedding?
The short answer is, pretty often. Your baby's sheets are scarier than you probably imagined.
A recent news item about chimpanzee beds revealed some startling facts. When scientists compared for cleanliness, abandoned Chimpanzee nests in Tanzania were found to be cleaner than human beds, presumably also abandoned.
After a lot of collecting and swabbing and analyzing, the verdict was clear. Less than five percent of the bacteria collected from Chimp beds was from their own bodies. In humans, the number was closer to 35 percent, and chimps fared better for a number of other cleanliness measures as well.
Not surprising—chimps construct their beds from scratch every day in a ritual worthy of an Incan Empire rite of passage.
While the chimpanzee story disappeared with the next news cycle, the uneasiness remained. We spend a third of our lives in close contact with our sheets. Newborns and Infants spend even longer and are, to put it discreetly, frequently covered in some pretty yucky stuff.
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But Does it Really Matter that Our Beds are Dirtier than Chimpanzee’s?
Should we really be concerned about our sheets with so many other things to worry about? After all, humans evolved from something that climbed out of the primordial ooze—surely our sheets won’t kill us.
And then there’s the hygiene hypothesis. Doesn’t science tell us that exposure to pathogens makes us stronger by beefing up our immune systems? Haven’t studies suggested that our kids are too clean?
Yup, all of the above is supported by science. But it’s also true that we share our environment with some pretty nasty pathogens that have the power to make us very ill. We’re talking about RSV, E.coli and salmonella, among others.
The simplistic version of the hygiene hypothesis has largely been replaced with a more nuanced version. Research suggests that we need a balance between strengthening our immune systems through exposure while avoiding harmful pathogens.
Cleanliness plays a role in maintaining good health, especially when it comes to newborns, but deciding what to clean and what to let slide is often difficult.
We’ll take a look at the science and the solutions. Fortunately, none of the latter requires a huge vat of boiling water and a large stir stick. The solutions do require a little extra time, though. Don't worry, it's not complicated and there's a stress-free checklist at the end so you won't forget anything.
Just How Vulnerable are Newborns?
Although some protection is provided by the mother’s immune system via antibodies shared through the placenta, newborns’ systems remain fragile. The Cleveland Clinic suggests protecting newborns from bacteria and viruses by limiting exposure for the first few months.
Research supports limiting exposure. For example, a study conducted at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, published in Nature, showed that cells allowing helpful gut bacteria to develop in newborns also suppressed their immune systems, making them more susceptible to infections.
It’s also important to remember that infant skin differs from adult skin. While the skin barrier is competent at birth in healthy, full-term newborns, it continues to develop, and rashes and eczema are common. Any breaks in the skin provide entry points for bacteria.
What’s Really Sloshing Around in Your Washing Machine
So what's in the wash that can make us sick? Not surprisingly, most of the harmful stuff comes from fecal matter in underwear. Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, studies laundry in home settings.
In a recent interview, Gerba noted that a laundry load of underwear can contain approximately 100 million E. coli. Fecal matter also carries salmonella and staphylococcus bacteria, the hepatitis A virus, the norovirus, and the rotavirus, among others.
Kelly Reynolds, a researcher and associate professor of environmental health at the University of Arizona, says that the germs from one item in a washing machine spread to 90% of the other items, and most of them will survive the wash cycle.
When it Comes to the Wash, What Goes Around Hangs Around
Reynolds is not alone in suggesting that pathogens can hang around in your washing machine. Research shows that washing machines serve to exchange pathogens during the wash cycle and they remain in the machine after the cycle is complete.
It just takes one item of heavily contaminated clothing to cross-contaminate an entire load and transfer bacteria to the inside of the machine, contaminating future laundry loads.
The real cause for concern, though, is the exchange of bacteria and viruses when someone is sick. According to Gerba, the chances are good that the pathogen causing the illness will make its way to everyone’s clothing and bedding.
So what can you do? Segregating your newborn's clothes and sheets won’t help much since pathogens remain in the washing machine. Fortunately, there are clear steps for getting rid of harmful microbes that won't take you all day.
How to Wash Your Newborn’s (and Everyone’s) Laundry
Evidence-based advice on how to launder your newborn’s sheets is hard to find. Even the venerable Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has little to offer, suggesting only this:
Hot water washing is not necessary for all household laundry. Read and follow the clothing and soap or detergent label instructions. Wash and dry clothing in the warmest temperature listed on the clothing label.
The problem with following the label's washing instructions is that manufacturers are not health experts. The instructions are designed to protect the integrity of the fabric not the health of people.
You're going to need to get create to get clean. It helps to view the process as a whole, with each step contributing to the effectiveness of overall effort. The steps include variables like water temperature, dryer heat level, and added substances.
Past studies have focused on removing pathogens in institutional settings, like hospitals. However, the results aren’t always applicable to homes. Hospitals use industrial-strength machines capable of reaching high temperatures. Household machines, on the other hand, are designed to launder, not sterilize. Many are incapable of providing the same high-temperature wash cycles
Adding to the problem, household have also shifted to cold wash cycles in order to save energy. Heating water accounts for 85 to 90 percent of the energy used by washing machines. Cold water extends the life of fabrics and prevents shrinkage, giving it vast appeal.
Philip Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at the New York University School of Medicine and author of the book, "The Secret Life of Germs,” thinks that many people do not use hot enough water. The temperature required to kill most germs is between 140 and 150 degrees.
Achieving these temperatures is often difficult. Some machines do have a sanitize cycle, which heats water to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 degrees Celsius) to eliminate bacteria on colorfast items. Without a sanitize cycle, you may have to rely on other methods to eliminate pathogens. In fact, it's preferable to use several methods even with a very hot water cycle.
Soap isn’t what it used to be. Laundry soap used to be made from plants and other materials sourced from nature. Detergent has replaced laundry soap, and is made up of synthetic cleaners that don’t need hot water to catalyze their cleaning action.
When it comes to removing pathogens, if the water temp isn’t high enough, then detergent won’t help. In fact, adding more detergent increases the likelihood that it won’t get washed away since washing machines are designed to remove only so much detergent. The last thing you want is harsh chemicals remaining on your newborn’s sheets and clothing after washing.
Dryers are capable of reaching the high temperatures that washing machines often cannot, and for that reason, are more successful in killing harmful microbes. Kelly Reynolds recommends high-temperature drying for about 30 minutes, so it's important to buy sheets and clothing that can take the heat.
Drying outdoors in direct sunlight is a good alternative to dryers because the ultraviolet radiation kills pathogenic organisms.
While there are claims that it's as effective as bleach, some dispute the efficacy of sunlight. Gerba notes that the sun’s rays won’t penetrate fabric, and half-drying in the sun, especially on a humid day, may allow more bacteria to grow. It's probably best to pair sunlight with other methods.
Many experts recommend chlorine bleach to remove pathogenic organisms from laundered items and from washing machines. Its efficacy is well documented, for sure, but the negative effects of chlorine bleach on the environment are also well documented.
Chlorine interacts with other substances in the environment to form persistent organic pollutants that linger in the water, air, and soil. The risks to human health and wildlife are significant.
Vinegar is frequently used as a substitute for chlorine bleach. White vinegar, or acetic acid, works well as a disinfectant by penetrating the cell membranes of bacteria and viruses, causing the release of protons and cell death. Researchers found that neat vinegar is capable of killing salmonella, E. coli, and bacteria that cause pneumonia, meningitis, and wound infections. Researchers in the UK also found that malt vinegar quickly inactivates the flu virus.
The Risk/Reward Ratio
Many recommendations raise concerns about the environmental consequences. Hot water and high drying temperatures use resources, and chlorine bleach is harmful to the environment.
It’s important to weigh the risks and find solutions that have the greatest benefit with the least harm. It’s probably best to think of bleach as an extreme measure to be used under extreme circumstances or not at all. Once an infant is over two or three months of age, and provided no one in the household is sick, standards can be relaxed.
The important point to remember is that bacteria can remain on items after laundering, and the health risk increases when a family member is ill. The risk is reduced or eliminated by putting a laundry protocol in place, which includes high temperature washing and drying, as well as regular cleaning of the washing machine.
It may seem like a lot of effort to ensure that your infant’s bedding is scrupulously clean, and, let’s face it, it is hard work. It may be helpful to think like a chimpanzee and incorporate basic habits into a washing and bed-making ritual. At least you won’t have to balance from a treetop, weaving a mattress from branches and leaves.
Checklist for Washing Crib Sheets
- Run vinegar or bleach through the washing machine once a month, or after every load if a family member is sick
- Wash baby items in a separate load
- Always wash diapers separately
- Avoid detergents with harsh chemicals and artificial scents
- Use unscented plant-based soaps—they work just as well
- Consider using an extra rinse cycle to remove residue from newborns’ items
- Don’t leave damp laundry in the washing machine
- Don’t leave damp laundry sitting in the dryer
- Use high-temperature settings
- Dry completely in direct sunlight, if possible
Extra Precautions During Illness
- Vinegar and/or bleach with hot water will get rid of most pathogens
- Disinfect the washing machine after each use
- Wear cottons that can be washed and dried using hot temperatures
- Wear colorfast clothing for high-temperature washing and drying
- Separately wash the clothing and bedding used by ill family members
- Keep the newborn’s items separate
- If using cloth diapers, consider switching temporarily to disposable
- As an extra precaution, wash your hands after transferring laundry from the washer to the dryer, unless a disinfectant was used
- Purchase high quality crib sheets in 100% cotton
- Choose organic to avoid pesticides
- Make sure the bedding does not have embellishments that can’t be dried at high temperatures
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