With the world in the midst of a pandemic, many people are interested in ways of optimising the function of their immune systems to keep well. We have seen the agony of families separated as adults are too unwell to care for their children. Both population-based approaches and individual actions have been implemented to keep us and our loved ones safe. As an additional measure for families - can the closeness of babywearing support immune systems and promote wellness?
Bear with me here, as this might sound like drawing of a long bow. Interestingly, there is plenty of research to start this conversation, with both direct links to babywearing and extrapolation from other studies. Primarily, closeness of carer and child does have benefits for the immune systems of both. Read on and see what you think about the impact of babywearing in reducing exposure to infections and enhancing the immune response.
To be clear, exposure to germs does build immunity. However, sometimes what we would consider innocuous in adults can cause young children to become quite unwell. Many families have special circumstances with illness or disease which makes avoiding exposure more important. Be reassured your baby will be naturally exposed to many germs as they grow and start moving about, popping all manner of questionable goodies into their mouths.
Hand washing is the cornerstone in prevention of disease spread (1). Whether hand sanitiser or soap and water, regular and thorough hand hygiene can stop bugs being introduced to your body or spread to others. As carers, there is plentiful interaction with our environment, our children and copious secretions, excretions and goodness knows what else. So, plenty of reasons to handwash.
Hand hygiene is essential when caring for little people and not always easy with a child in arms. It is difficult to wash your hands one-handed without adaptive equipment, such as a baby carrier. Having your child in a carrier makes it easier to wash your hands more regularly and thoroughly and support other children with washing theirs. Having clean hands means better protection for you and your family from exposure to infectious organisms.
The human infant is magnetic. Loved ones and strangers alike seem to be powerless against the attraction of a baby. If your child happens to be in a pram or the like, then there appears to be no personal space for them as others are drawn close to goo, gah and maybe even touch their cheek. Worst of all is the cough, sneeze, or kisses of an unwell person on your baby’s face. Your child has no way of getting out of that situation for themselves.
One way of keeping others away from your baby and avoiding awkward interactions is to keep your baby close. Somehow, adults demand a much wider personal space and others are not so keen to invade your space to get close to your baby. Tucking your baby close against your chest in a carrier is one guaranteed way of keeping them a certain distance from others and reducing exposure to unwanted illness.
Research has shown that babies who are carried more cry less (2), indicating that the natural environment of the infant is close to the caregiver. Staying close to home, that is on the chest of a carer in a carrier, is wonderful to boost your child’s immune system, in a myriad of ways.
From the research base for skin-to-skin care and hugs, being held close helps the child to regulate breathing, heart rate and temperature, with pain-relieving and calming effects from parasympathetic nervous system activation (5). The feel-good hormone oxytocin is implicated in many of these physiological responses, which helps the body to grow and heal, as well as other hormones such as dopamine and serotonin.
The parasympathetic nervous system, these hormonal cascades and the ‘rest and digest’ they bring can be activated by many things, including pressure receptors in our bodies. Oxytocin can be released in anyone in response to touch, warmth, food, smell, sound, light, positive thoughts, and interactions. Keeping your baby close to you in a carrier may tick all these possibilities as going about daily life promotes release of feel-good hormones, health, and wellbeing.
Oxytocin is also known to have anti-stress effects, including reduction of cortisol and other hormones released in response to stress (3). Stressors trigger the sympathetic nervous system and a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, which is considered adaptive and useful in the short-term. However, long-term stress has been shown to impact on the functioning of the human immune system, health, and wellbeing, with increased risk of disease and illness across the lifespan (4).
In the context of babywearing, an infant crying in response to an acute stressor, such as seeking connection with a caregiver, releases cortisol and other inflammatory markers. This can be mediated by release of oxytocin upon being held close to the body of a responsive caregiver, where our children feel safe. And it is not just the child who is affected by a hit of oxytocin, the “transfer of support, warmth and empathy” can influence the caregiver in the same ways (3, p. 57).
We have all felt that irresistible urge to kiss our babies’ heads and few can resist the somehow intoxicating smell of a newborn’s head snuggled in close to us. Trigger an oxytocin release and an immune system boost for both of you! An oxytocin boost also influences breastfeeding physiology by both stimulating the milk let-down and connection between the lactating mother and infant. Being held close means that carers can respond to their baby’s hunger cues quickly, which helps optimal positioning and attachment, satisfy the baby’s need for milk, maintain supply, and supports breastfeeding success.
Breastmilk is dynamic in composition and changes in line with exposure to microorganisms from the environment surrounding mother and child. Breast milk contains many things that support the immune system, including antibodies to a variety of diseases, immune factors, cells, probiotics, and prebiotics to list just a few (6). Every breastfeed supports your child’s immune system.
Hold your baby close
If there was ever a reason needed to hold your baby close, then knowing you are increasing their lifelong health and wellbeing by doing so must be one of the best. No wonder it feels so good.
1. World Health Organisation (2021). World Hand Hygiene Day. https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-hand-hygiene-day/2021
2. Hunziker, U. A., & Barr, R. G. (1986). Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomised controlled trial. Paediatrics, 77(5), 641-648. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.77.5.641
3. Uvnas-Moberg, K., & Petersson, M. (2005). Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth, and healing. Zeitschrift fur Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychotherapie, 51(1), 57-80. https://doi.org/10.13109/zptm.2005.51.1.57
4. Morey, J. N., Boggero, I. A., Scott, A. B., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2015). Current directions in stress and human immune function. Current Opinion in Psychology, 5, 13-17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007
5. Reynolds-Miller, R, L. (2016). Potential therapeutic benefits of babywearing. Creative Nursing, 22(1), 17-23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1891/1078-45126.96.36.199
6. Australian Breastfeeding Association (2021). Breastfeeding and immunity. https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bfinfo/breastfeeding-and-immunity