The early development of the immune system begins in labour. Each contraction experienced by the mother triggers pain and the stress response (sympathetic) to the pain generates an increase in energy, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen, liver glycogen, and analgesic, which helps to reduce the degree of pain.
All of these processes in the mother also affect the baby, who hasn’t yet developed the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal, (HPA) axis.
The above pain and hormonal response between mother and baby does not apply when an epidural has been administered or with cesarean births.
Oxytocin stimulates contractions and it is sometimes referred to as the hormone of love. The inability to secrete it is associated with sociopathy and a decrease in the capacity to feel empathy. Oxytocin is the hormone of trust, which is essential for the baby and for the baby’s ability to adapt to stress. This stress process involving the hormone of love begins the infant’s initial training in developing the ability to adapt to stress.
During delivery, the production of analgesic, endorphin and oxytocin hormone is increased in order to protect the baby and increase trust. This trust is necessary for the baby so that the mother’s immunity is not rejected.
The baby must pass through the birth canal secretions so the skin is covered in vernix at birth. This should not be washed from the skin due to the moisturising and various antimicrobial protective properties for the baby.
It is important for mother and baby to have skin contact as soon as possible after birth in order that mothers friendly bacteria is passed to the baby’s skin which will support immunity from skin allergies and bacteria such as staphylococcus.
The baby should also be encouraged to suckle at the mother’s breast as soon as possible after birth in order to benefit from the colostrum which passes on increased immunity from mother to baby.
The next person that is introduced to and touches the new baby is the father and then any siblings and other family members. Gradually a, “flora of family” is established with all family members and also within the family home.
The immune tissue in the gastro intestinal tract and the skin play a very important role in our immune defenses. The epidermis of our skin contains fat and friendly bacteria live in this fat. Our skin helps to maintain a normal body temperature and also provides a defensive barrier to protect us from disease. Skin “peeling” removes this protective layer and therefore immunity is reduced.
Skin, and vaginal secretions, should be slightly acidic which helps to destroy bacteria. Soap will alkalise so excessive washing and especially the use of anti-bacterial soaps may be counter productive by destroying our natural skin defenses.
Excessive disinfectant use in the family home is not necessary and doesn’t permit the natural immunity in the young to fully develop. Interestingly, studies have shown that allergies are highest in families who over-sanitise. Disinfectants are sensible to use in public places such as hotels, which may contain universal pathogens and bacteria.
Over time the child’s continued training and ability to adapt to stresses increases immunity. Adaptation capacity is linked to the ability to be exposed to, and to defend against, bacteria, viruses and parasites.
Nature dictates survival of the fittest so the natural early development of a strong immune system is necessary for the ability to adapt to all stressors and this training is a lifelong process.
Adapted from a lecture given by Dr. M. Kucera July 2012.
Copyright (c) Sheri Dixon 2011
“Touch in Early Development” by Tiffany M. Field