Background: Patterns of neonatal exposure to microorganisms have changed substantially over the last 100 years, and it has been suggested that this has influenced the risk of immune-mediated disease. Using a proxy measure, we tested the hypothesis that the initial handling of newborn infants, which is known to affect the pattern of exposure to microorganisms, may alter the risk of developing subsequent atopy, as indicated by hay fever.
Methods: Analysis was performed on 5519 members of the 1970 British Cohort Study, a nationally representative birth cohort. Cohort members with hay fever were identified at intervals up to the age of 26 years. Details of neonatal care and childhood circumstances were recorded prospectively. Those who had spent their first night away from their mother in the communal infant nursery were selected as likely to have experienced atypical exposure compared with infants who remained with their mother. Adjustment was made for potential confounding factors in infancy and childhood by multiple logistic regression analysis.
Results: Unadjusted relative odds (with 95% CI) for developing hay fever among those spending the first night in the communal nursery, when compared with other infants who remained with the mother, were 1.48 (1.23–1.77), P<0.001. Comprehensive adjustment for the potential confounding factors, including feeding practices on the first day of life, markers of social and material circumstances, and region, did not substantially alter this relationship, with adjusted relative odds of 1.31 (1.08–1.59), P=0.005.
Conclusions: While our proxy measure is associated with an increased risk of hay fever, further research is required to confirm that this is due to the pattern of infectious exposure in very early life. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that the first challenges are particularly important in the development of the newborn infant's immune system.