Are Public Restroom Changing Tables Really Dangerous?

Contributed by Vicky Bell

Although my own 3 children are grown, my career, (formerly teaching, currently a hodge-podge of art, workshops and volunteerism) continues to put me in the direct path of parents doing the best they can to raise their babies in a complicated world.

So when I saw this video exposing the nasty hordes of germs lurking on baby changing tables in public restrooms, I wondered how real was the risk? Were babies truly endangered?  Or was this expose´ a frightening sounding, but ultimately harmless and statistically meaningless non-issue?

We all know that a certain amount of exposure to everyday germs is beneficial for healthy infants and young children, a natural way of boosting their immunities and building a robust defense against disease.  Healthy kids who’ve been exposed to everyday germs—kids who play in dirt—do get sick, of course, but they also recover quickly, easily ridding their bodies of toxins, viruses and unhealthy bacteria to which they’ve been exposed.

So why scare us with all this undercover secret camera stuff about public changing tables?  Isn’t lugging around our babies, our carriers, our diaper bags and our 2-year olds enough for us to deal with?  Isn’t it enough to lay something (a blanket, a towel) under the baby being changed?

Well. No. It’s sort of like the 5 second rule… remember that?  That bit of magical thinking which posits a nasty germ requires at least 6 seconds to climb aboard your fallen, tasty morsel. As children, we believed. As weary parents? Sometimes we find ourselves sort of wishing it were true, looking the other way, and hoping for the best. Kind of like laying a regular towel on the changing table.

Only it doesn’t actually work that way. Because not all germs, or germy places, are equal.

I asked my adult daughter Addison, a scientist (who ate plenty of dirt back in the day), to watch the video and explain to me why parents should be more worried about the germs on a changing table, then, say, those in a backyard.

She explained that the changing table germs are highly concentrated, and generated by a stew of fecal matter – which by definition is bad.  Your body expels such matter for good reason and this is the primary stuff you want to avoid. The video suggests wiping the surface with anti-bacterial wipes (not plain baby wipes).  A good practice, but is that enough?

I asked her about the germ-killing properties of silver and what she thought of the Bye Bye Bacteria line of silver-embedded fabric products for babies.  Fantastic application, she said, and exactly the sort of thing she would be working on if she hadn’t changed majors (from materials to environmental science). Silver, she explained, has well documented germ-killing properties and is being used in bandages and other items by hospitals and in the military to help prevent infection. Says Addison, it makes perfect sense to use it in children’s products.

I thought about all the times I’d changed my children with just a thin blanket or cheap changing mat beneath them, and how I’d fold the item up (germs and all) and put it right back into my diaper bag. Ugh. How much better it would be to have had a changing pad that would act not just as a barrier between my babies’ bottom and whatever dubious surface was available, but one that actively killed the bacteria it encountered?  Technology is a wonderful thing.

Yes, an antimicrobial Fold-N-Go changing pad should be part of every parent’s diaper bag. Because new parents have enough to worry about.  Like growing extra limbs for all the things they have to carry, and knowing when (and when not) to apply the 5 second rule.


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