It’s pretty well known that an adult’s gut, or microbiome, regulates everything from digestion to mood to the immune system — do babies and children have the same microbiome?
Babies are born with a sterile gut, but they’re quickly introduced to varying amounts of good bacteria through:
- Birth canal
- Mother’s skin during cesarean section
- Mother’s skin during skin to skin or breastfeeding
- Breast milk
- Select formulas
- Foods as they are introduced into a child’s diet
- Probiotic supplements
The mode of childbirth, use of antibiotics and feeding patterns all have a large impact on a child’s microbiome—which is rapidly changing during their first years of life.
How does breastfeeding impact a baby’s microbiome?
Breastfeeding has many benefits for a mother and her baby. Breast milk contains probiotics and human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) which help to stimulate the colonization of different bacteria. While some formulas also contain probiotics, they will contain a different variety than a mother’s breast milk. Research has shown that breast milk plays a large role in creating a healthy microbiome for babies.
What common childhood conditions or illnesses could hint at an unhealthy gut? Why does the gut shed light on these underlying issues?
There’s no doubt that a healthy gut is linked to substantial health benefits. In babies and children in particular, the microbiome has a substantial impact on the immune system, neurocognitive and emotional development. However, research also suggests that an unhealthy imbalance of good and bad bacteria may lead to autoimmune and inflammatory diseases (such as asthma and eczema), poor digestion and obesity. It’s crucial to create a healthy, diverse microbiome for your child through the introduction of probiotics.
Throughout childhood, many children will be put on antibiotics to treat mild illnesses like ear infections. Although antibiotics are able to fight off the bad bacteria that cause infection, they also kill good bacteria in the gut. Anytime an antibiotic is administered, it is beneficial to start a probiotic, under the supervision of a physician, in order to rebalance gut function.
Diarrhea, another prevalent ailment for babies and children, can also create an imbalance of bacteria. Some research has proven that incorporating probiotic or probiotic-rich foods into your child’s diet can help minimize the duration of diarrhea.
Besides probiotics, what else can help build a healthy microbiome for a child?
Good feeding patterns are essential in creating a healthy microbiome. Babies are exposed to probiotics through breast milk and some formulas. Once solid foods are introduced around six months, they can start to consume foods like yogurt and kefir that may naturally contain probiotics. It should be noted that babies who are immunocompromised, chronically debilitated or seriously ill should not take a probiotic supplement.
Overall, it’s important to incorporate a variety of healthy foods into your child’s diet to get a variety of nutrients. Limiting processed foods that are high in sugar can be beneficial as to not increase bad bacteria within the gut. The American Heart Association recommends less than 26 grams of added sugar for children ages two to eighteen and no added sugar for children under two.
Q: What age is building a microbiome the most important or fragile?
A: The first three years of a child’s life is the most important yet fragile time for building a healthy microbiome—with the most rapid change occurring during the first year. Around six months of age, when a baby starts consuming solid table foods, they are introduced to a variety of bacterial flora. It is critical during these first three years that a diverse, solid foundation of microflora is introduced.
What is the connection between food intolerances/allergies and a child’s gut?
Research is still being conducted to determine the impact probiotics may have on food intolerances and allergies. However, some research suggests that probiotics can help minimize symptoms. In regards to food allergies, one study found that adults who had nut and seasonal pollen allergies also had a low diversity within their microbiome. This research may help us better understand the ways that prioritizing gut health can potentially prevent certain allergies for children. Although this research is promising, further research is needed to determine its efficacy.
Overall prebiotics and probiotics are recognized as safe and are well-tolerated for healthy infants and children. The introduction of probiotics can provide good bacteria that can improve your child’s digestion, allergy symptoms and create a healthy foundation when it comes to their gut health. However, more research is necessary to determine the effectiveness of probiotics as a form of medical treatment for certain diseases and prevention of allergies. All caregivers should inquire with their child’s pediatrician prior to starting a probiotic supplement to ensure that it is medically appropriate. The use of probiotics is not suggested for high-risk infants and children, including preterm infants.