newborn babyWithin the first few months of a baby’s life, many parents come to the realization that their new little bundle of joy is sometimes more bundle, less joy. This realization often occurs during long sleepless nights while trying to soothe a fussy or sick baby. This realization also often comes with the question of why it is that babies seem to get sick at the drop of a hat.

Popular knowledge has led us to believe a baby is born with an immature immune system - that it’s not strong enough yet to withstand attack from the bazillions of germs in even the cleanest environments. We believe exposure to illness-causing microbes will strengthen the baby’s immune system so he or she won’t be adversely affected the next time these nasty germs come back into the baby’s world. An intriguing new study suggests that is not exactly what’s happening. That something even more amazing might be going on with the baby’s immune system.

The human body is host to trillions of microbes, from bacteria to fungi, that actually help us stay healthy. This microbial population - the microbiome - is generally beneficial, as long as balance between good germs and bad germs is maintained. The good germs fight off or kill off the bad outside germs introduced to our microbiomes when cold and flu season comes around, for example. The beneficial germs also keep the body’s population of harmful germs in check so they don’t cause illness. The health of the body relies on a harmonious balance of good and bad microbes.

Babies are born free of this microbial population, which begins developing at birth. First exposure to new microbes often causes illness as the baby’s immune system develops. After a few years, the immune system is usually strong enough that the child doesn’t get sick as often.

Dr. Sing Sing Way thinks we may be looking at the baby’s developing immune system the wrong way. Research he and his team conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital indicates the baby’s immune system is actually being naturally suppressed, not activated.

His study suggests the newborn’s immune system is turned off so beneficial microbes can flourish, thereby strengthening immunity from a different perspective. By suppressing its own immune system, the newborn’s body becomes a welcoming environment that invites colonization of the many beneficial microbes that will help maintain health throughout the child’s life.

Perhaps parents can find joy in knowing that during those long, sleepless nights, the baby is actually getting healthy, not sick.

Source: Shokrollah Elahi, et al. "Immunosuppressive CD71+ Erythroid Cells Compromise Neonatal Host Defence Against Infection." Nature. 6 Nov 2013. Web. Retrieved 18 Nov 2013.