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July 4, 2017

The immune system is the gatekeeper to your health, and it can change during different stages of your life, particularly throughout pregnancy and in babies. Paulette Crowley talks to the experts about how you can strengthen your – and your baby’s – immunity.

How immunity works

The immune system is an army of cells in your body that fight foreign bodies, which can cause infection or other harm. When it has ‘conquered’ an infection, it produces antibodies that will protect you from getting sick with the same illness again.

The good news is that most people’s immune systems work well, unless they’ve been compromised with a serious disease such as AIDs, or have had treatment such as chemotherapy.

However, pregnancy is also a time when the immune system is slightly weakened, so the body doesn’t reject a pregnancy as a foreign invader, says Jacqui Anderson, a midwifery advisor at the New Zealand College of Midwives. “It slightly dampens  in order to maintain the pregnancy.”

This reduced immunity doesn’t necessarily mean pregnant women are more prone to catching bugs, but they become more at risk of developing complications from some infections, such as pneumonia. Because of this, it’s recommended women take extra care of their health before, during and after pregnancy to protect the immunity of themselves and their unborn baby.

Linked immunity between you and your baby

When you’re pregnant, your antibodies are transferred to your baby through the placenta, and they often end up with a higher concentration of them than you do. “With this, they can be protected for weeks to months after they’re born,” says Dr Petousis-Harris.

The longer they are carried inside, the better their protection will be: babies born early have much weaker immunity than those carried to full term.

Immunity is a complex business and is often misunderstood. For example, whether your baby is born naturally or via c-section has no bearing on its immunity.

Many precious anti-bodies are still transferred through breastfeeding, and especially via the colostrum you produce before your milk comes in. Breastfeeding also protects your baby against gastro bugs that they could be exposed to via bottle feeding, and is recommended by the World Health Organisation as a complete diet for the first six months of a baby’s life.

Day-to-day health & your immunity

Eating a healthy diet while you’re pregnant is good for you and your unborn child on every level, and especially for your immunity, says Jacqui Anderson, midwifery advisor for the New Zealand College of Midwives.

“Fresh food and veges, good-quality protein, not too many carbs and lots of fluids are good.” Being aware of the increased nutrition needs during pregnancy, and foods you need to avoid (including deli meats, unpasteurised dairy products, raw and marinated seafood and raw eggs) is also key. 

How you prepare your food is also crucial to protecting your health: it’s worth reminding yourself about food safety messages, she says. Lots of good information can be found at foodsafety.govt.nz.

Living in good housing conditions – dry, well ventilated and uncrowded – is also a major influence on your health, as is moderate exercise for about 30 minutes a day.

“You also need to be careful around who you’re interacting with, especially if you don’t know if you’re immune to rubella,” she says. “It’s not about wrapping yourself up in cotton wool, but rather avoiding situations where there may be a number of infectious diseases.”

A drop in iron stores (anaemia), which is common in pregnancy, can also mean a predisposition to colds, influenza and chest infections. However, this may not mean you need supplements, especially if you start off with good iron stores, as your body may be able to compensate for lower levels.

“Pregnancy creates a situation where there is a physiological drop in the iron stores. The plasma [liquid in your blood] volume increases, especially in the last trimester, so there’s a natural dilution of iron. It’s really important that it does happen, to a degree.”

However, naturally occurring physiological anaemia is different to iron-deficiency anaemia, which will probably require you taking extra iron. Your lead maternity carer will keep an eye on this. 

Staying healthy after baby’s born

Giving birth is a massive ordeal for your body, and you need time to recover and heal to keep your immunity strong, says Jacqui.

“Take care of yourself. Stay close to home with your baby and help to support yourself in recovering from the birth process. A woman can bleed for up to six weeks after having a baby, so there’s potential for infection there… the uterus needs to heal.”

Staying at home is also helpful in establishing breastfeeding, and will limit your baby’s exposure to infections in the community.

Another thing you can do to protect your baby’s immunity is to look after their skin.

“The baby is born with a protective mantle on their skin. We don’t want to wash it off with harsh chemicals. Washing your baby with water is perfectly wonderful and will help protect the bacteria that is developing on their skin, which looks after them for their rest of their life.”


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