“Stay away from sick people and make everyone wash their hands before holding your baby. Don’t let strangers touch your baby. Don’t take your newborn outside or let young children visit for at least a month. Breastfeed your baby for at least a year.“
Do any of these pieces of parenting advice sound familiar to you? Given that they are some of the most common methods believed to help keep babies from getting sick, chances are good that you began hearing them as soon as you entered into parenthood if not months before. It’s safe to say that parenthood would be a lot easier if there was some way we could keep all babies from getting sick—at least during the first few months of life. Unfortunately, there’s no foolproof method to insure your baby won’t get sick or develop a fever; yet it’s entirely possible for you to significantly lessen her chances.
In this article, we’ll take a look not only at the role our immune systems play in keeping us well, but ways in which you can actually give your baby’s immune system a boost until it is better equipped to fight infection on its own.
Our Built-In Defense Systems
Your immune system is a complex system capable of amazing things. Overall, its basic task is to protect you by recognizing anything that gets into your body, determining if it is foreign, figuring out if it is friend or foe, and responding accordingly. When your body is faced with defending itself from intruders such as bacteria or viruses, for example, many types of cells within your body spring into action. Some respond by producing infection-fighting proteins called antibodies. Others, such as white blood cells, are able to attack bacteria directly and destroy them. Through methods such as these, your body’s immune system is often able to prevent you from getting sick, and helps you get well again if you do become sick.
We know that a newborn’s immune system is not nearly as effective as an adult’s or even an older child’s, and that it takes many months before a newborn can fight off infection as well as someone whose immune system is fully matured. Nonetheless, you may be pleasantly reassured to know that newborns are much better protected against (or immune to) potential illnesses and diseases than you might otherwise think. This is because during pregnancy, disease-fighting antibodies made in the mother’s immune system are able to make their way across the placenta and into her baby’s body. Fortunately, these antibodies stick around for several months and are able to give newborns an added level of protection from many routine illnesses during this important time when they are not as able to effectively make their own antibodies. However, all good things must come to an end, and infants gradually get less and less benefit from their mothers’ antibodies—that is, unless they are breastfed.