Is a Dirty Baby a Healthier Baby?
New mothers are notoriously vigilant about germs, especially In North America. Mothers go to great lengths to protect their precious newborns from exposure to just about anything that might be “dirty”. Birth usually occurs in a relatively sterile environment; in gleaming, highly hygienic hospitals in most instances. In the case of Caesarean section, many babies are never exposed to the rich microflora of the mother’s vaginal canal. And, of course, at the first sign of any sort of infection, potent antibiotics are likely to be dispensed.
At the same time, allergies, asthma and other immune-system disorders are rampant in our society. Some experts have noticed these trends, and have questioned whether there’s a link between the two. After all, we now know that the microbiome—meaning the collection of communities of various types of friendly bacteria living in and on the body—is a crucial component of the immune system. A healthy gut microbiome, for instance, is now known to be crucial for proper immune system function. Allergies are the result of a disordered immune system.
Older people who have undergone multiple rounds of antibiotics, for example, are often afflicted with a disease-causing microbe called c. difficile. It’s well named, because it’s extremely difficult to eradicate once established. In extreme cases, c. diff is capable of weakening and killing its victims. It’s now apparent that c. diff is only able to take hold in the gut after protective, friendly bacteria have been all but wiped out by intensive antibiotic therapy.
For some time now, certain experts have hypothesized that early exposure to rich communities of bacteria is an important step in strengthening the young immune system. The so-called hygiene hypothesis says, in effect, that efforts to protect our babies from exposure to “dirt” is misguided, and ultimately, counter-productive. Children who live on working farms are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with allergies or asthma, for example. Doctors think this is because these children are more likely to be exposed to lots of germ-laden dust and dirt—including allergenic proteins from farm animals.
A while back, I related the finding that the children of mothers who lick their baby’s dropped pacifiers clean—rather than sterilizing or replacing them—tend to have healthier immune systems. Despite the “ick” factor, it appears as if mother’s saliva actually helps inoculate these babies with mom’s beneficial bacteria.
It now appears as if one of the reasons breastfeeding is so beneficial has to do with exposure to bacteria living in and on mom. “The research is telling us that exposure to a higher and more diverse burden of environmental bacteria and specific patterns of gut bacteria appear to boost the immune system's protection against allergies and asthma,” says Christine Cole Johnson, Ph.D., MPH, chair of Henry Ford Hospital’s Department of Public Health Sciences.
"For years now, we've always thought that a sterile environment was not good for babies. Our research shows why. Exposure to these microorganisms, or bacteria, in the first few months after birth actually help stimulate the immune system," Dr. Johnson says. “The immune system is designed to be exposed to bacteria on a grand scale. If you minimize those exposures, the immune system won't develop optimally.”
Henry Ford Health System. "Breastfeeding, other factors help shape immune system early in life." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 February 2015. .