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Germ Warfare

When my newborn came home from the hospital two years ago, I underwent a miraculous transformation from slapdash housekeeper to one-woman antigerm militia. At maternal gunpoint, visitors were marched from the door to a bar of soap. I washed clothes, boiled bottles, and swabbed counters as if practicing the rites of a new religion.

How long did my piety last? Flash-forward eight months: There I am strolling my son down a New York City sidewalk  -- home, you can be sure, to an astonishingly multicultural horde of pathogens  -- when he hurls his bottle to the ground. I pick it up to put it away, but when he wails plaintively, I hesitate only briefly before wiping the nipple on my shirt and handing the bottle back. As I glance around to make sure no fellow parent witnessed my crime, I suppress the fear that I may just have exposed my baby to the infamous flesh-eating bacterium or the first case of a new, incurable plague.

If you've always been a clean fiend, you may never arrive at such a conflicted moment. For most of us, however, the hectic pace of parenthood leaves little energy to keep up the rigorous hygiene we're led to believe will protect our kids from infectious harm. Forget the time. Who has the presence of mind to make sure the cloth that wipes the high chair tray never skimmed applesauce off the floor? To scour the tub between baths or swab the bar on the shopping cart before your toddler tastes it?

But as terrifying words like Campylobacter and cryptosporidiosis steal headlines from political scandals, many of us want to know just how aggressively we need to muster our at-home defenses. Where are the places we should concentrate our germ-fighting firepower? What are the best weapons, and is there such a thing as overkill?

Julia Glass, winner of two Nelson Algren Fiction Awards, writes about health issues for several national magazines.