Any parent can tell you that having children changes you forever. However, besides extrinsic alterations, like the house being messier or a lack of time for your hobbies, having children also drastically changes who we are intrinsically. One study, which was published in 2016 but seems even more important in this harsh flu season, found that having children severely alters parents' immune systems.
While some of the ways a child impacts our immune system may not surprise you (hello, runny noses and dirty hands), these alterations aren't all bad. The study found that though there are some negatives to how children affect our immune system, there are also some positive changes as well.
Our environment shapes our immune system
What we decide to do in our day, whether it's doing unhealthy things like eating sugar and smoking cigarettes, or making healthy choices like exercising and eating vegetables, all affects our immune system. Those kinds of choices are impacted by those we live with, especially when we have children. Mimicking a picky toddler's unhealthy diet or not making time for exercise will change your immune system, weakening it for possible illnesses. Conversely, maintaining a healthy environment in the home can strengthen everyone's immune systems, since people tend to do what their partners and children do.
Sleeplessness and stress complicate immunity
Children, especially the young ones and newborns, aren't known for sleeping a whole lot. Besides the potential for making children cranky, this can also impact the parents' immune system. Prolonged lack of sleep is one of the most proven ways to adversely impact immunity, since it's during sleep that we heal.
Since parenting can be particularly stressful, it's important to note that this also impacts how healthy we are. In the study, it was found that those with lower stress levels were able to recover from illness faster than those with high stress. Managing stress is important, not just in how we react to our children, but also for our health.
Our microbiome might be affected
Our body contains trillions of microbes that live in and on our bodies, helping to train our immune system to prepare for illnesses. For a while now, there has been the idea that to properly prepare children's immunity, it's a good idea to let them play with others and not be so strict about cleanliness, thus exposing them to more germs and building up their immune systems. For parents, this also seems to be the case. Having a kid increases the likelihood of a merger of microbial communities. In essence, kids cause more bacteria to be shared with their parents.
Children expose parents to new pathogens
Unless an adult spends a lot of time around a variety of people, like doctors and teachers do, having a child completely changes what type of pathogens a parent can become exposed to. Children often get sick because their immune systems are still developing, which increases the risk that their parents will also get sick. However, other studies have confirmed that our bodies remember which pathogens we have been exposed to, thus strengthening us for future illnesses later on.
The psychology of being a parent can complicate matters
How we feel about being parents can shift depending on the mood and age of the child, and now we know it can also affect our immunity. Although it can be a hard job, being a parent is also rewarding. That reported feeling of greater meaning of life and happiness can go a long way in warding off potential illnesses. So the happier you feel about parenting and the actions required in taking care of a sick child can impact whether or not you catch your little one's cold.