“A baby born vaginally gets exposed to a ton of bacteria while traveling through the birth canal compared with a C-section baby who lands in a surgeon’s sterile gloves,” explains Christine Johnson, PhD, MPH, senior staff epidemiologist at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. “But we now think this early bacterial exposure is crucial to immune system development.”
One German study of almost 2,000 children found that those delivered by C-section were about 80 percent more likely to develop celiac disease, a digestive disorder triggered by eating foods with gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. C-section babies are also more than five times more likely to develop certain allergies if exposed to allergens during the first year of life, according to a 2013 study conducted by Johnson.
These findings tie into the hygiene hypothesis, which holds that the lack of early childhood exposure to bacteria increases susceptibility to allergies. “Our bodies are evolutionarily designed to fight infection,” explains Todd Mahr, MD, a pediatric allergist at Gunderson Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “When you limit exposure to germs and infections, your immune system instead reacts to substances like dust mites, certain foods, or pet dander.”
How You Can Use the News
Avoid elective C-sections, but if you need one for medical reasons, all is not lost. Several studies have found that breast-feeding protects against celiac disease and allergies. Ask your pediatrician to recommend when your baby should start eating solid foods. The latest research shows that infants introduced to gluten gradually beginning at four months had a significantly lower incidence of celiac disease compared with those who were given gluten after six months, according to a Swedish study published earlier this year. One caveat: The AAP advises against giving any solid food before four months of age.
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