Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Baby's Immune System

There are two schools of thought when it comes to a baby’s immune system.

One theory says to keep the child away from large groups of people, lest they contact a virus.   In other words, don’t go to church.  Insist that everyone washes their hands first.  Douse the baby in anti-bacterial soaps whenever possible.  Keep the whole house spotlessly clean.  Wipe the child with sanitizing solution often.

Our pediatrician is of this school of thought, and it seems very reasonable.  Little ones are tiny and therefore fragile.  Right?  Yes.

The second school of thought totally disregards the first.  Take the child anywhere you want.  Expose them to the elements.  Let Grandma, Grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins with dribbly noses hug and kiss the baby.  Hand-washing is optional.  A few licks from the dog can’t hurt.  Essentially, let them live…and worry not.  Babies don’t break easily.  Right?  Yes.

These two schools of thought are such extremes of one another, and I’ve been trying to figure out which school our little family is enrolled in.  They both have very appealing qualities.

So far, the way we’ve lived with Liam, we’re pupils of the second school.  But are we just choosing the easier road for our convenience?  Does it appeal to us just because it’s less maintenance?  Essentially, are we bad parents?

I kept thinking.

I base most of my decisions on two things: Faith and Science.  And, as the Great Pope John Paul II once said, these two are meant to be harmonious, like two wings of a flying dove.  One should compliment the other because both should reveal some of the truth of the world in which we live.

My Faiths tells me that all life is a miracle, and we’re never living without the mercy of our Great God.  We’re always living on a prayer, so if Grandma has a drippy nose, a sore throat, and open arms to love my child, I will not stop her.  Liam’s existence is a miracle, and miracles are meant to be shared with joy, not dispensed in small, controlled increments due to fear.

So how does Science support the philosophy of the second school of thought?  I’ve been pondering this question for quite some time now.  Four months, to be exact.

I thought first about the history of humanity.  I’m sure our ancestors clamored in crowds around the tribe’s newest members.  I’m certain that back then, just as today, friends and family members came out of the woodwork, begging to hold the child, even if just for a few moments.

When God created babies and their immune systems, He simply had to KNOW that a baby would be instantly surrounded by throngs of people, varying in age and health themselves.  He simply had to know that, shortly after birth, tons of love (and tons of germs) would be piled on that precious cherub.  Even Jesus experienced this as a little baby in his holy nativity!

Humanity has survived for thousands of years in this manner, so what is it that Science is telling us about babies bodies?

I think finally I’ve got it.  I have my own theory about why the second school of thought ROCKS!  Please allow me to explain...

Just before Liam was born, I learned something critical at my Breastfeeding 101 class.  New studies had revealed that there is a two-way communication between a child’s mouth and his mother’s breast.  Formerly, we thought that the communication was decidedly one-direction.  That is, the mother’s milk gave antibodies to the child and the child just accepted whatever he was given.

However, the two-way communication factor changes everything.  It goes like this:  If the child encounters a germ while apart from his mother, the child’s mouth will convey this germ encounter to his mother’s breast at the next feeding time.  The mother’s breast will communicate this to her own immune system, and her body will respond by delivering the exact antibodies needed in the next flow of breastmilk.

Therefore, the antibodies in the breastmilk are tailored specifically to combat the germs that the child has encountered in his environment.  It is not necessary that the mother and child share the same environment.

"Don't worry, Grandpa.  I'll be fine!"
For example, if Baby nuzzles up to Grandpa who has a sore throat and Mother never gets that close to Grandpa to be affected by him herself, Baby’s mouth will ask Mom to supply him with the antibodies to thwart off Grandpa’s germs, and her body will deliver.  Thus, baby stays healthy.

My theory continues like this:  The baby’s body is protected, therefore, by TWO immune systems.  One is young, growing, and ready to learn; the other is experienced and has withstood the test of time.  It is the same relationship shared by a mentor and her apprentice.  When working correctly, together these two immune systems shield Baby with a level of protection that is unprecedented and will be unrepeated.  How beautiful!

So, if this is true, why do pediatricians caution parents against large crowds, when big, communal huddles forming around a baby are so very natural?  Aren’t our bodies made for this?

Then it dawned on me.  A child fed by formula has only one, inexperienced immune system to rely on.  Therefore, he ought to be shielded from large crowds and drippy noses.  It makes sense that he should be infiltrated into the community gradually, allowing his immune system to develop a robust nature at his own pace.  With the majority of women choosing formula these days, it is no wonder that pediatricians recommend this cautious practice to all babies. 

So does that mean that mamas of breastfed babies never have to worry?  No way.  Moms of all types worry all the time.  And breastfed babies will soon be battling germs on their own, also.  When solid foods begin to be introduced (and the baby relies less on breastmilk), the baby's own immune system will start to take over.  So, my guess is that breastfed babies get their first significant cold sometime after solid foods have made their debut.

These are just a humble girl's opinion!  Leave a comment and school me if I'm incorrect.  :)