Babies are cute little disease vectors

For the first 6 months of my little one’s life, I enjoyed the luxury of spending almost every waking moment with him, thanks to Australia’s generous maternity leave laws. I was also lucky enough to be able to breastfeed him – a feat which, while challenging at first, proved invaluable the first time I got a cold after he was born. He was about 8 weeks old and I woke up with a sore throat. I woke my husband up and told him, in a solemn voice, “I’m sick”. We prepared for the worst. We stocked up on a vaporizer, saline nose spray, baby chest rub, and bunkered down.

He didn’t get sick. He stayed jolly and healthy through my cold, and the next one, and the next one. Suddenly the sore nipples and leaking milk didn’t seem quite so bad. Breastfeeding was a miracle! We realized that, as long as I got sick first, our little one was less likely to get sick because he was getting antibodies through my breast milk.

Fast forward to last week. I have been at work for just over a month and, luckily, I am still able to express milk for him to drink. But, because I’m not with him all the time, he caught a cold before I could take the bullet for him. And then, because babies have no manners, and like to do things like jam their snot-covered fists into your mouth and laugh, both my husband and I caught it. I don’t think there’s any argument over how we got sick this time.

But I have been rather annoyed at the number of times I have been gotten a cold since the baby was born – probably 4 or 5 – that I have obviously caught from people who weren’t coughing directly into my face as I swung them over my head singing, “Wheee!”. And I’m someone who never really used to get sick. I used to brag about my immune system of steel.

This got me thinking about a body of literature on stress and disease and, in particular, Sheldon Cohen’s work on susceptibility to the common cold and other infectious diseases.

In one of his most famous studies, the researchers asked participants how much psychological stress that had recently experienced, and then gave them nasal drops with various forms of the common cold (or saline, to have a control condition). The more stress that someone had experienced increased the likelihood of infection and cold symptoms.

Could one reason I am getting sick more often be due to a general increase in psychological stress? Taking care of a baby is hard. They’re cute but they’re awfully demanding. On top of that, after he was born I was spending a lot of time dealing with immigration issues for my husband and just generally moving our entire household overseas. And worrying a lot.

This seems a likely culprit, but I’d also like to pinpoint one particular thing that I believe may have affected me the most – sleep, or rather, lack of it. Anyone who has had a baby knows that you pretty much never sleep again. Ever. At least, that’s the way it’s looking right now. In particular, it’s the uninterrupted sleep, rather than the total number of hours, that I think I am most nostalgic for.

Indeed, another study of Cohen’s (using the same method of subjecting people to the common cold virus; I’m sure they got paid for it) showed that people who normally slept better (for my sleep-research friends, longer sleep duration and better sleep efficiency), were less likely to get sick.

coldsThe final thing that seems to play a role in being resistant to getting sick is social connections. Cohen’s earlier work has shown that the more social roles you have, the less likely you are to get colds. And other research has found that social support helps you to not die from illnesses like heart disease and cancer.

So while there are some things about stress that we can’t control, like when my baby wants to wake up every hour at night and play a fun game where he grabs my nose and sticks his fingers up my nostrils, we can remember to keep good friends and family around us for support, and to take care of ourselves both physically and mentally.

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