Sleep serves multiple purposes in the functioning of various biological processes, and baby immune system is one of the most important ones. Processes like physical and mental growth, emotional and psychiatric health; building the immune system, clearing toxins from the brain. And yet none of these fail due to lack of sleep. Sleep enhances the performance of these processes and is crucial to our general well being.
Don’t you just hate it when a loved one feels unwell? It gets even worse when the loved one is a baby. You do everything within your power to reduce the risk of your loved one developing an illness.
Unfortunately, infants and children pick up bugs very easily. Why does this happen? Despite all precautions that we take, why do our children feel unwell so often? This is because the baby immune systems are still developing.
Well, the truth is, colds, flu, and a host of other issues are going to attack your child in their life outside the womb. You cannot cocoon your baby from every cold that comes along.
But, you can help the baby prevent and fight these problems by ensuring that the baby builds a good immune system.
What is the immune system?
Our immune system is made up of both innate and acquired adaptive immune responses. Innate immunity occurs naturally due to genetic factors or physiology. Acquired adaptive immune response is the result of infections or vaccinations.
Innate immunity has a limited role. It identifies the threat and tries to remove it. For example, our tears contain microbicidal elements that fight against microbial eye infections.
In case the innate system cannot fight the intruder independently, it mobilizes the acquired adaptive immune system.
Simply put, the immune system is a network of cells and proteins that defends the body against infection.
Think of your body as a fortress. The skin and mucous membranes are the walls of the fort (the first line of defense). They act as barriers to intrusion. However, if the walls are breached, parts of the innate immune system (the foot soldiers) work to repair the damaged portions and clear away the intruders.
If the intrusion is large, these foot soldiers send messages to the control room for help. The control room calls upon the acquired adaptive immune response. Depending on the type of intruder (virus, bacteria, fungus, or parasite), the control room will send out a specific unit to fight and defeat the intruder.
This is what the immune system is all about.
There is one interesting factor that connects the immune system to sleep. The adaptive branch of the immune system develops a memory of past infections. To understand how sleep helps with this, read on.
Mother and Baby Immune System
Your immunity levels during pregnancy have a huge impact on the baby’s immunity at birth. During your third trimester, antibodies in your system are passed through the placenta to your baby. However, the type and quantity of antibodies that are passed depend on your levels of immunity. This is what provides your baby with protection at birth.
Natural childbirth provides additional immunity to the baby. During natural childbirth, bacteria from the mother’s vagina, passes on to the baby. This helps build the bacteria colony in the baby’s gut. Healthy gut bacteria contribute immensely to good immunity.
We often hear our elders talk about how healthy our ancestors were. There was no C-section option then. I wonder if this was one of the reasons for their good health.
Post birth, you still pass antibodies to your baby. Colostrum and breast milk are rich in antibodies that get passed on when you breastfeed your baby.
Babies do not have as strong an immune system as adults. The immunity passed on by you starts decreasing after the first few weeks after birth. Your baby immune system starts maturing around the 2nd or 3rd month.
It is in these first few months that cell-mediated immunity (an immune response that does not involve antibodies) develops.
Immune system during Pregnancy
Why are pregnant women considered to be more at risk from infections? This is due to a quirk of nature that takes place deep in the body.
50% of the fetus’s genetic material comes from the father. The mother’s immune system should fight and reject the fetus as it would any other intruder. This is where the quirk gets into the act.
In order to ensure that the fetus is not rejected by the mother, her immune system generates a tolerant immune memory of the fetal tissue. This is known as the ‘paradox of pregnancy’, where the mother’s immune system develops tolerance to paternally derived fetal antigens despite having adequate defense against infections.
This results in a scenario of immunosuppression in both the mother and fetus which carries over into early life. Since the mother’s immune system is suppressed during this period, she is more susceptible to infections.
Baby immune system at birth
Our immune system is made up of cells, tissues, organs, and proteins. While your baby immune system works in exactly the same manner as yours, it has limitations. Being young and immature, the system takes time to learn about the different adversaries and build an effective campaign against them.
The response to the first infection is neither as quick nor as strong. But, the system learns and the next time the bug attacks, the system is ready to deal efficiently and effectively against it.
This unpreparedness of the immune system is the reason why your baby is more prone to infections. As the baby grows, so does the immune system. Very soon the system starts recognizing the invaders and creates effective barriers to keep them away.
Proof of its effectiveness shows – we rarely suffer from chickenpox or measles more than once.
Baby immune system booster : Sleep
Our folks are not wrong when they ask us to get a good night’s sleep if we are feeling under the weather.
Remember we spoke about how sleep helps the immune system develop a memory of past infections. Well, after fighting the intruder, the majority of the fighters die. The few that are left, remember the type of intruder and the response required. These fighters multiply rapidly and in case of a further attack, fight the intruder effectively based on their memory. Great! But how does sleep help?
We have known for long that sleep supports long-term memory formation. We also know that the immune system remembers their encounters. The immune system collects fragments from the intruder and creates memory cells.
Vaccination, Sleep and Immune system memory
Studies have shown that post vaccination, deep slow-wave sleep helps in increasing the numbers of memory cells of the immune system. Slow-wave sleep helps develop long-term memories of generalized information. Thus, we can conclude that this leads to adaptive behavioral and responses by the immune system.
Sleep is an important modulator of the immune response. Thus, a lack of sleep can weaken immunity, increasing organism susceptibility to infection.
In fact, a mere three hours without sleep are enough to reduce the function of important immune cells.
How to boost baby immune system naturally?
As a mother, you have provided your baby with the head start through your immunity system. But, what can you do to help till the baby’s immune system is fully developed?
Eat healthy nutritious food during your pregnancy. Your baby, while in the womb, will grab all the nutrients it can. The more it gets, the stronger the immunity. Ensure that your diet contains adequate quantities (for two) of iron, calcium, folic acid, and vitamins. What you eat during pregnancy plays a strong role in how your baby learns.
If possible, consider a natural delivery. We have already spoken about the immunity provided as the baby passes through the birth canal. Research indicates that a natural birth might reduce the chances of Type 1 Diabetes, hay fever, and asthma, later in the baby’s life.
Breast feeding is packed with goodness – for the baby. Colostrum, the thick milk, produced in the first few days after birth is rich in antibodies. This will help your baby from infections and allergies.
Try to ensure that your baby gets as much sleep as possible without waking at night. This will be easier once the baby does not require feeding every few hours. Timing of sleep is as important as duration of sleep. Improper sleep timing results in incomplete sleep cycles – irrespective of the duration of that sleep. If you want to read more on ways to get your baby to sleep well, you can read our article on why it’s so hard to get your baby to sleep.
Don’t panic every time your baby feels under the weather. As babies get older, they are exposed to more and more bugs. While they produce their own antibodies when exposed to a virus or germ, it takes time for this immunity to fully develop. This is simply nature’s way of educating the young immune system.