Before you place your baby down on that changing table, you really should wipe the thing down first. Just bring along a pack of disinfectant wipes or sanitizing wipes, wipe down the surface, wait 30 seconds, then put your little bundle of poop/joy on there. Believe it or not, this simple task is highly effective at killing whatever’s on there, and, if you don’t… well, here’s just an idea of what may be on there.
“Primarily, you’re going to find pseudomonas and gram negative rods,” says “The Germ Guy” Jason Tetro, author of The Germ Files. Pseudomonas are “simply environmental bacteria that you’ll find everywhere,” Tetro explains. They live in water and soil and even on your skin in moist areas. You don’t need to worry about them too much, but Tetro does warn that if you have an open wound, they can cause an infection and on really sensitive skin (i.e., your baby’s nether regions) it can cause a rash or itchiness.
As for the gram negative rods, those are bacteria found in fecal matter. Named for their rod-like shape, they’re known for causing all sorts of infections: The most concerning ones you may find are E. Coli which, while usually harmless, can also cause pretty terrible infections. There’s also klebsiella, which Tetro says “used to be a regular, good-old-fashioned poop germ, but now it has all sorts of antibiotic resistance and can cause urinary tract infections and even klebsiella pneumoniae, which can cause respiratory problems.”
You’ll also possibly run into the bacteria known as staphylococcus, warns Michelle Barron of the University of Colorado Division of Infectious Diseases. This is what causes staph infections, including one particularly nasty infection known as MRSA, which is notoriously hard to get rid of due to its extreme resistance to antibiotics.
Tetro says you may also encounter C. difficile, a bacteria living in many people’s guts. While this bacteria is known to be harmful in hospitals, especially to the elderly, Tetro says it’s usually not bad for a baby. On the other hand, though, he warns of coming into contact with cold viruses, as people and babies may sneeze on changing tables. These end up being more concerning than the fecal matter, because they’re more likely to make you sick.
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself that this just worst case scenario stuff, scraped from the worst changing tables in the worst family restaurant chain, it’s not: This is just the fairly typical stuff. On TV show The Doctors, the remarkably photogenic panel of medical professionals did a segment where they tested a variety of changing tables in different locations and came back with pretty discouraging results. While the changing table they tested in a pharmacy was clean, staphylococcus was found on the changing tables of a fast-food restaurant and a grocery store. They also found pseudomonas, likely derived from feces, on the changing table in a high-end department store which featured a changing table covered in fabric.
Speaking of which, changing tables covered in cloth are definitely something you should be wary of, as it just turns into a sponge for the fecal matter and bacteria. Barron also cautions against laying down any kind of blanket on the changing table as it will quickly become contaminated. Those changing pads are great, however, as long as they’re not fabric and you wipe them down after each use.
In a similar study, investigators at ABC7 in Denver went around their home town and swiped a whole bunch of different kinds of changing tables to see what turned up. Unsurprisingly, bacteria was on every surface, but some were way worse than others and the bad ones probably aren’t the surfaces you’d expect. The least amount of bacteria was found on the changing tables in a fast-food restaurant, a big-box store, and shockingly, a rest stop. The middle range for the surfaces they checked were a city building, a library, three mall restrooms and an airport. The dirtiest changing tables they tested ended up being in a hospital and a coffee shop. Among these results, which were examined by Barron, there were, among other things, salmonella and shigella, both of which can make you and your kid pretty sick.
Why the disparity, especially in the places you’d expect to be the most gross? Well, Tetro attributes it to cleaning schedules. Some of the places that you expect to find the most germs, like rest stops and airports, also have a fairly rigorous cleaning regimen, so they’re regularly removing the leftover poop and bacteria. Whereas a changing table that is less frequently used (i.e., the coffee shop) may not be cleaned so regularly by that apathetic barista who can’t even manage to spell “Brian” right on a coffee cup.
Regular cleaning is also why, in his experience, microbiologist Charles Gerba tells us that changing tables at home generally seem to be more clean than public ones, as most parents tend to clean them pretty regularly.
The changing tables you should be most concerned about though are, unsurprisingly, in your kid’s daycare center. Tetro cites one study from the University of Tennessee, which found that not only was fecal matter found on the changing tables, but the same amount of fecal matter was found in the food preparation area. In another study into child care centers, Gerba, along with his colleagues, was looking into influenza contamination and found that from testing 14 facilities, influenza was found on 57 percent of changing tables.
Basically, if your kid seems to be sick every other week from colds they’ve caught at their daycare center, don’t expect it to stop anytime soon. As for the rest of the time, either keep your kids in a bubble 24/7, or bring some wipes with you, man.