Welcome to the World of Germs
by Heather Rothbauer Wanish
When a baby comes into the world, many new mothers and family members try to prohibit anything dangerous from reaching the new baby. In addition, most people don’t want a new baby to get sick or be exposed to a wide variety of germs and illnesses. However, did you know that germs can be a good thing? In fact, being exposed to germs may lead to a healthier lifestyle for both babies and adults.
Since 1989, there has been something called the “hygiene hypothesis,” a proposal that an increase in certain conditions, such as asthma and other inflammatory diseases, is due to a reduced exposure to bacteria, germs, and other microbes. Exposure to germs starts at a young age, including during the birthing process. According to Time Magazine Health and Family, babies born vaginally are exposed to bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens as they pass through the birth canal. These bacteria are swallowed by the newborn as they are being born; the bacteria travel through the stomach and colonize the upper and lower intestine. This exposure serves as a sort of immunization against germs and other bugs they may encounter as their developing immune system adjusts to their new environment.
When the babies pass through the birth canal, they are able to pick up the microbial content of their mother’s gut. Science News reported that babies born vaginally were colonized predominantly by Lactobacillus, microbes that aid in milk digestion. After childbirth, the baby’s immune system begins to distinguish between good and bad bacteria in the microbial world, leading to attacks on harmful bugs while leaving beneficial ones alone.
While babies delivered vaginally have an advantage by receiving these “good” germs, babies that are delivered by Cesarean section may be missing out on this valuable part of the birth process. According to Time Magazine Health and Family, those babies born via c-section have fewer colonies of Escherichia and Shigella bacteria. These types of bacteria are critical to forming the newborn’s immune system. Several studies have shown that babies born via c-section may be more likely to develop allergies, asthma, and other immune system-related conditions than babies born vaginally.
After the baby is born, there are other ways the new mother can help provide good bacteria to her child. As many studies have illustrated, breast milk is optimal for both babies and mothers. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of the baby’s life. A mother’s milk can help protect the baby from infections and reduce health problems later in life.
So, what is in a mother’s breast milk that makes it the ultimate source of nutrition? The following information from the American Pregnancy Association showcases the primary benefits of breast milk:
• Lactoferrin inhibits the growth of iron-dependent bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. This inhibits certain organisms, such as coliforms and yeast, that require iron.
• Secretory IgA also works to protect the infant from viruses and bacteria, specifically those that the baby, mom, and family are exposed to. It also helps to protect against E. Coli and possibly allergies. Other immunoglobulins, including IgG and IgM, in breast milk also help protect against bacterial and viral infections. Eating fish can help increase the amount of these proteins in your breast milk.
• Lysozyme is an enzyme that protects the infant against E. Coli and Salmonella. It also promotes the growth of healthy intestinal flora and has anti-inflammatory functions.
• Bifidus factor supports the growth of lactobacillus. Lactobacillus is a beneficial bacteria that protects the baby against harmful bacteria by creating an acidic environment where it cannot survive.
Breast milk carries important proteins, fats, vitamins, and carbohydrates that all promote the overall health of your baby. As children get older, and even as adults, germs are still important.
For most families, much time and energy is focused on staying germ-free. However, research has shown that early exposure to germs may offer a greater protection from illnesses later in life. According to WebMD, children with older siblings, those who grew up on a farm, or those that attended daycare from an early time tend to show lower rates of allergies. Young immune systems are even strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that the system can learn to adapt and regulate itself. In today’s environment, most germs are harmless and have been with us for many years. However, because of human behavioral changes over the past fifty years, many microbes, especially those that are good, are disappearing. While parents are definitely encouraged to keep their children and families healthy, a balance is always necessary. When trying to keep children’s environment germ-free, it is important to utilize common sense.
While it seems to be a common parental understanding that children should be kept clean, neat, and dirt-free, new research is showing that this may not be the best avenue for future health. There is no need to obsess over being completely germ-free, as it may actually be detrimental to your child’s health. Supporting the right amount of germs and bacteria can result in a variety of healthy benefits, including fewer ear infections, urinary-tract infections, and food allergies. Allowing kids to get dirty and to be exposed to germs is a good thing. At the end of the day, it is okay for kids to be kids.