In these germ-phobic times, it's easy to feel guilty for skipping the kids' bath on a hectic evening or handing your baby's paci back straight from the floor without rinsing it. The dirty truth: It's nearly impossible to keep your kids perfectly clean all the time. Luckily, you don't have to. Nine slacker moves that won't hurt your kids' health one bit (and will save you time):
Cleaning your hands with only a baby wipe after a diaper change
Washing with soap and hot water is the best way to get your hands clean, but wipes'll do in a pinch, removing most of the germs that go with the poop, says Arjun Srinivasan, M.D., a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
For more thorough on-the-go cleanings, he recommends following up with an alcohol-based wipe, foam, or gel, which works great on your children, too (just remove any visible dirt on the hands with a wipe first).
Giving your child something -- a bottle, a pacifier, a cookie -- that has fallen on the ground
For the most part, brief contact with the ground isn't anything to worry about. In fact, when it comes to catching the latest cold or flu virus, the floor is no riskier than a tabletop or counter. If your child does ingest bacteria, "stomach acid protects him against most things," says Michelle Bender, M.D., a pediatrician in Short Hills, New Jersey.
Wiping the item on your shirt or with a napkin may remove some of the visible dirt, which is good -- and far better than cleaning it in your mouth.
Skipping the bath for a day or two -- or three
"We overbathe our children," says Patricia Edwards, M.D., a pediatrician in Concord, New Hampshire. "Every time you bathe, you strip the skin of essential oils, which can lead to dry-skin problems." Most children who haven't reached puberty can get away with bathing and hair washing once or twice a week because they don't have major body-odor issues, she says: "Don't feel guilty if they skip a bath here and there."
One or two days and nights without clean chompers is not going to cause a major problem, though you wouldn't want to go longer than that, according to Cynthia Sherwood, a dentist in Independence, Kansas, and spokeswoman for the Academy of General Dentistry. On the days you're tempted to dodge the brush, pay attention to what your child has eaten before bed. It's more critical to clean kids' teeth when they've filled up on prime cavity culprits like carbohydrates or acidic foods. Some children are more cavity-prone than others, though, so if your child already has fillings, it's crucial to brush daily. If not, at least try to make him swish some water around in his mouth and spit it out to reduce acid and rinse out lingering food particles.
Neglecting to dust or vacuum
"Parents get so worried about dust," says James Sublett, M.D., director of the division of allergy and immunology at the department of pediatrics at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky. "But the dust you see isn't what causes allergies or asthma." The real culprits are dust mites and other microscopic particles that settle in carpets, bedding, and upholstery. Covering mattresses and pillows in an impermeable casing (available where you buy bedding) and washing sheets in hot water -- ideally once a week -- will keep them under control.
Forgetting to vacuum may also be a blessing in disguise: "Vacuums stir up irritating fragments, like animal dander and other allergens." Sublett suggests using a vacuum with a HEPA filter and, if you have kids with allergies, doing it when they won't be around for a few hours. On smooth surfaces, like tile or wood floors, use a damp mop instead.
Not changing the bathwater after your child has peed in it
"Urine is sterile," says Ivy Faske, M.D., a pediatrician in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. "You're not exposing them to germs." For the same reason, gross as it may sound, pee in public swimming pools also poses little health risk.
Cleaning your child's face with your saliva
While saliva's not an ideal cleaning agent because it can transmit illnesses, it has some antibacterial properties; after all, it does protect and bathe your teeth and your mouth. "It's like a kiss," says Dr. Faske. "If you're not currently sick, chances are it's not going to do any harm." Bottom line: As long as you're just using a little on his face (and not, say, to wipe his eye), it's fine.
Letting your child use his sleeve as a hankie
"That dried-on, crusted stuff on your children's clothes is perfectly safe," says Dr. Edwards. "Once the secretions are dry, they really can't infect." If you don't have a tissue handy, using a sleeve to wipe snot is better than letting it drop on a communal surface, possibly spreading germs to other people.
Skipping baby wipes when changing wet diapers
If it's just urine you're dealing with, you don't always have to use a wipe, according to Dr. Bender: "The newest diapers are so absorbent, they actually take a lot of urine away from the skin." Plus, since urine is a clean substance, letting a small amount dry on the skin shouldn't be irritating unless your child already has a diaper rash or there's poop in his wet diaper, too. The important thing is to avoid trapping in moisture, so whether you're using wipes or not, let your child air-dry before diapering again.
In the end, "try to relax about keeping your kids clean," says Dr. Bender, a mom of three who had to shrug it off when she once found her son eating a pickle he'd discovered on the floor of a bagel shop. "If our bodies really were that sensitive, we'd be sick all the time."
3 health shortcuts not to take
Not washing hands before meals
"If there's one thing you should always strive to do, it's washing your hands and your children's hands before eating, for twenty seconds with warm water and soap," says Dr. Srinivasan. Hands tend to get germy, since we do so much with them, from coughing to turning doorknobs. And since young children often eat with their hands, they're at high risk for infecting themselves that way.
Skimping on food-prep safety
"All meat for children under eight should be well-done, especially hamburger or ground meat, to avoid severe gastrointestinal infections from E. coli bacteria," says Dr. Edwards. (Older kids have stronger immune systems.) Make sure to disinfect your countertop with bleach, dish soap, or a cleaning product labeled "disinfectant" -- no antibacterial products necessary -- after preparing raw poultry, meat, or eggs. The smaller the child, the smaller the number of bacteria he needs to get an infection.
"Rinsing" pacifiers with your mouth
Though your saliva can be relatively harmless when used to wipe a cheek, it's potentially more dangerous in a child's mouth. "It's worse than just giving the Binky back," says Dr. Bender. "There's bacteria on adult teeth that babies don't have -- bacteria that cause cavities." It could also transmit an illness you may be carrying.
Jennifer Conroy is the mom of two healthy, dirt-loving children in Madison, Connecticut.