MONDAY, May 6 (HealthDay News) -- A new Swedish study suggests
that parents who want to protect their infants from developing
allergies should try a simple approach to introducing their
children to the wide world of microbes: Just pop their pacifiers
into their own mouths before giving them back to their babies.
Although that may sound disgusting or even risky to some,
researchers found that the transfer of oral bacteria from adults to
infants seems to help train the immune system to ignore germs that
don't pose a threat.
"The immune system's purpose is to differentiate between harmless and harmful," said Dr. Ron Ferdman, a pediatric allergist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "If your immune system is not presented with enough microbes, it just defaults to doing harmful attacks against things that are not harmful, like food, cat dander or dust mites."
A report released last week from the U.S. National Center for
Health Statistics showed that the number of American children with
allergies has increased dramatically in recent years: about 13
percent have skin allergies and 17 percent have respiratory
The Swedish researchers set out to learn whether very early
microbial exposure during the first months of life affects allergy
development. They found that children whose parents sucked on their
pacifiers to clean them were less likely to have asthma, eczema and
sensitivity to allergens than children whose parents did not clean
the pacifiers this way.
The authors concluded that parental sucking of their baby's
pacifiers may help decrease the risk of allergy caused by transfer
of microbes through the parent's saliva.
For the study, published online May 6 in the journal
Pediatrics, 206 pregnant women in Sweden were initially
recruited as participants, and 187 of their infants were included
in the research. The scientists sought families with at least one
allergic parent to see if they could identify a different immune
response in the children.
The researchers studied the transfer of microbes in the parents'
saliva by fingerprinting bacterial DNA in 33 infants' saliva, of
which 21 had parents who sucked on their pacifiers.
A total of 187 babies were followed until the child was 18
months old, and 174 were followed until they were 36 months old.
The researchers chose to evaluate the children at those specific
points in time because some diseases, such as eczema, develop early
in life, said Dr. Bill Hesselmar, an associate professor at Queen
Silvia Children's Hospital, in Gothenberg, Sweden.
Introducing solid foods into an infant's diet did not seem to
affect the study results, Hesselmar said. "We found differences in
the oral microbial flora already at 4 months of age, at an age when
most children are still on breast milk."
Ferdman, who was not associated with the research, urged caution
in interpreting the results of the study. "It's a small number of
babies studied, so it's hard to generalize," he said.
He also expressed concern that results may not be widely
applicable because the data were taken solely from Swedish
participants, who are not a genetically diverse population.
Other researchers have expressed concern about dirty
Dr. Tom Glass, a professor of forensic sciences, pathology and
dental medicine at Oklahoma State University, presented research at
the American Society for Clinical Pathology in Boston last November
that found a wide range of disease-causing bacteria, fungus and
mold on children's pacifiers. They also found that pacifiers can
grow a slimy coating of bacteria called a biofilm that alters the
normal bacteria in the children's mouths, spurring inflammation and
potentially increasing the risk of developing gastrointestinal
problems or even ear infections.
The value of using a parent's saliva to clean a dirty pacifier
has been known for some time, Glass said. "We have for a long time
advocated that if you're at the Walmart and the baby drops the
pacifier, you're better off putting the pacifier in your mouth [to
clean it] because you have immunoglobulin components that fight
bacteria in your saliva."
Glass expressed concern that the researchers did not identify
the specific microbes transferred from parents to the pacifiers.
"We don't know what the parents are actually transmitting to the
child," he said.
What should parents do to help prevent allergies in their
children? "Babies need to be exposed to the world, and exposure to
the normal microbial environment is protective," Ferdman said.
"Breast-feed for at least four to six weeks if you can. Don't
smoke, and don't expose your children to secondhand smoke."
Find out more about the risks and benefits of pacifiers from the
American Academy of Family Physicians.
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