Research from AllerGen was just released that looks at the relationship between a mom’s stress and a baby’s immune health. 

The research found that when mothers experienced distress, both during and after pregnancy, their infants were three times as likely to have reduced immune function (lower levels of an important immune antibody in the infant’s gut). The research also found that breastfeeding can help protect babies from the effects of maternal stress on their immune system.

This research emerged from the CHILD Study – the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development Study – following 3,500 Canadian children and their families from before birth to school age and beyond to identify the root causes of asthma, allergy and other chronic conditions.

This study is generating breakthrough insights about child health. Its findings have implications beyond reducing chronic diseases in children, pointing to influences on many interconnected child health and well-being outcomes.

UNICEF Canada is part of CHILD’s advisory group for knowledge sharing. Will decision-makers listen and act on the new insights through improved policies and programs? Will parents be more or less confused about how to give their children a great start in life?

Happily, the emerging research points to some basic actions that have big impacts across a range of conditions, such as the role of breastfeeding. The WHO/UNICEF Baby friendly Initiative in Canada is a proven way to support breastfeeding.

How else can we support mothers to decrease their stress during and after pregnancy and improve infant health?

1. Improve parental leave. Research shows that parental leave has a big influence on parental stress and breastfeeding. Canada has taken important steps in the past year to make leave longer/more flexible, and to introduce secondary caregiver leave. Secondary caregivers are often more likely to do more housework and alleviate mothers’ stress. But parental leave leaves out a lot of stressed parents because they aren’t eligible for it and because the benefit doesn’t come close to meeting their financial needs. International research suggests that parents are happier to be parents in countries that provide more resources and social support to families.

2. Be bolder for early childhood education. Quite simply, we need to invest in quality early childhood education and care that is available for all children, as a public good. A new report measures progress and highlights where more progress is necessary. Early child development programs that meet these standards also support breastfeeding and help alleviate parental stress, among many other benefits for children and society.

If these feel like big expectations, it’s good to know that other countries who are already doing these things are achieving great child health outcomes. Parents and kids are happier.

When we do these things, we will really have something to celebrate on the International Day of Happiness, a milestone we just passed. We shouldn’t have to wait for more CHILD study findings to do better.

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