Bacteria begins to colonise in our babies before birth because the amniotic sac is not sterile. The bacteria in the placenta and amniotic fluid is not dissimilar to that found in our mouths. It changes depending on our baby’s term. Full-term babies swallow lots of amniotic fluid in the final weeks of pregnancy, and this begins the seeding process in their gut. Low birth weight premature babies miss out on some of this.
How caesarean birth affects your baby’s gut health
The greatest impact is whether your baby has a caesarean birth or not. Caesarean babies have less diversity in their gut bacteria and this can persist up to the age of seven. After birth, your baby’s gut flora will reflect a complex interplay of environment, genetics, and nutrition. Though this is early days, we know that healthy gut bacteria will be a real boon to your baby, helping digest food, produce vitamins and outcompeting pathogens so that your baby is more resilient to infections.
How breastfeeding affects your baby’s gut health
What if you had a preterm infant, a caesarean birth or can’t breastfeed?
The research into this field is in its infancy so these suggestions are just that. This is what science is beginning to tell us.
No antibiotics unless it’s urgent
Say no to antibiotics, unless absolutely completely vital. Do not use antibiotics in the first two years of life if you can. If you do need to give your little one antibiotics, get off them as quickly as possible and use a probiotic straight after and keep that probiotic going for about 3 months. Trials will eventually give us a more definitive answer but for the moment long-term supplementation with probiotics seems to be the wisest thing.
Use pre and probiotics in foods
Inulin and fructooligosaccharides are fibres that stimulate good gut flora populations. High inulin foods include asparagus (perfect finger food) in spring, Jerusalem artichokes in autumn and winter, leeks, garlic and onions, and bananas – especially when they are still a little green. Whizz up less ripe bananas with avocado in a smoothie.
If your little one is getting lots of infections, then consider a probiotic supplement, and if they have constipation try to keep this high inulin and high probiotic diet going as long as possible. Research shows that effects of these foods can wear off, so if you are concerned about your little one’s microbiome, incorporate these foods into their diet long term.
Prebiotic fibres like FOS supplements have not been well studied in babies. Though they are cheap and readily available, use food where you can until we know more about them. Probiotic supplements, however, have been shown to be safe and effective (though far more work needs to be done on the best dose and combinations).
Keep good probiotic foods in baby’s diet – not sweet fromage frais, but a good organic kefir (maybe with banana!). Probiotics (the bugs) and prebiotics veggies (the bug food) given together are more effective than one or the other.
No antibacterial washes or wipes
Research into the effectiveness of antibacterial washes and detergents have shown them to be no better than really good thorough handwashing and scrubbing with non-toxic old fashioned soaps. Antibacterial wipes and gels have chemicals in them that, if ingested, might damage the gut flora.
Never wipe your baby’s face with a triclosan-containing wipe. Good old water is better for their skin and for their gut. Don’t allow any modern antibacterial surface sprays in your kitchen near food either. You want cleanliness in your home, never sterility. A sterile environment can open the door to pathological bacteria because your “old friends” (commensurate bacteria) who keep them at bay have been killed off. Babies don’t need soap either – use water where you can, especially in the first weeks of life, and keep soap and scented wet wipes to an absolute minimum.
Plenty of hugs and kisses
By far one of the most delightful ways to build your baby’s gut flora, and their bacterial friends, in general, is lots of skin to skin contact with you, and lots of lots of kisses.
The bottom line
Finally, if a healthy gut arises from lots of complex interplays. Please don’t worry if you think your child might have a compromised microbiome. Good food, laughter and lots of kisses will do most of the repair work for you, and maybe some simple supplements will help if you both need them. Even premmie babies with lots of antibiotics in early life can grow up robust and healthy and fabulous. I should know, mine just turned 21!
By Rhaya Jordan
Rhaya is the resident nutritionist with Daylesford Organics.