Nurturing Gut Health

Nurturing Gut Health from the Start: How Babies Develop Good Gut Bacteria for Life

Gut health has never been higher on the health agenda, but how can we support good gut health right from the start? Every parent wants to give babies the best start to life, and one critical aspect of this journey is nurturing gut health, which can lay the foundation for a lifetime of wellness. It surprises many parents that good gut health for life is established in the first three years of life—a key window to get it right!

In this blog, we’ll cover

  1. Understanding the gut microbiome and factors that affect this in babies
  2. Strategies to promote good gut bacteria in babies
  3. The long-term benefits of a healthy gut microbiota

What is the gut microbiome, and what factors affect its development in babies?

The human gut harbours an extensive community of microorganisms, encompassing trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and single-cell animals collectively known as the gut microbiome. Visualise this ecosystem as a diverse “gut garden,” where each microorganism thrives on specific foods or environmental conditions. Most of these microbes are beneficial and essential for maintaining overall health, contributing to crucial functions like digestion, immune response, and disease prevention. However, an overgrowth or imbalance with harmful bacteria in the gut can lead to various health issues.  This is often called gut dysbiosis.

Each person has a unique gut microbiome (like our fingerprint), which is influenced by several factors, some of which impact it more than others. 

Every individual possesses a unique gut microbiome influenced by many factors, some of which we can control and others we can’t. In babies, some factors that affect the gut microbiome include;

  • Delivery method, e.g. vaginal vs C-section
  • Skin-to-skin contact
  • Feeding method, e.g. breastfed vs formula milk-fed
  • Weaning and dietary diversity
  • Exposure to antibiotics and certain medications
  • Environmental factors, e.g. siblings, pets, where you live
best time to start weaning

What helps to promote good gut bacteria in babies?

In the initial months of life, your baby’s gut microbiome undergoes significant shaping influenced by factors such as delivery method, type of milk feed (breast or formula), medication usage, and environmental factors.  It’s important to recognise some of these factors may be or feel outside of our control, e.g. where your baby is born in the world, requiring an emergency c-section, but there are certainly lots of factors that can support the development of a healthy, happy gut garden for babies;

  • Breastmilk contains many bioactive factors that support a baby’s gut microbiome development (e.g., components that don’t provide nutrition but another health benefit).  One example is human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), which comprise a significant proportion of breastmilk composition but provide no nutrition to babies.  Instead, they go undigested and reach the gut to help support the growth of beneficial bacteria.  
  • Offering plenty of dietary variety when starting solids, especially with foods containing a wide variety of fibre and nutrients, e.g. fruits, vegetables, beans/pulses, nuts, seeds, fermented foods (like yoghurt) and whole grains, can help with the diversity of good gut bacteria your baby develops.  Read more about this here.
  • Avoiding unnecessary use of medications like antibiotics – babies do get unwell and, at times, will need essential antibiotics to manage their symptoms; however, avoiding unnecessary antibiotics is a consideration for a baby’s developing gut microbiome.
  • Nature and friends: There is good evidence to support the benefits of nature and ‘dirt’, mixing with peers, siblings, and furry friends to develop a healthy gut microbiome.
  • Evidence-based probiotics.  Probiotic supplements are now widely available, and their scientific definition is “ live organisms (bacteria), that when given in the right amounts, confer (provide) a health benefit”.   Like many dietary supplements, they are not all created equal.  Using bacteria strains that reach the gut alive in the right amounts and have a sound scientific evidence base for use is vital!  For babies, supplement strains that have demonstrated benefit include Limosilactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938, which has been shown to improve colic symptoms in breastfed babies, alongside evidence for other gastrointestinal conditions such as reflux and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea.

The long-term benefits of a healthy gut microbiome

We understand more than ever that how we shape the gut microbiome in early life can impact a child’s short—and long-term health.  Developing a diverse and healthy gut microbiota in infancy has been linked to the following;

  • Improved immune functioning – did you know 70-80% of the body’s immune cells are in the gut?  The community of bacteria in a child’s guts can significantly impact their immune development and functioning.  For example, the gut microbiota maintains a balance between a robust immune response to fight off infections and preventing excessive or inappropriate immune reactions that could lead to inflammation or autoimmune disorders. Think of it like tuning the volume knob on a radio: you want to find the right level of response to keep your body protected without overreacting.  
  • Cognitive functioning and mental well-being – the link between the gut and our brain is becoming better understood than ever.  The road between our brain and gut is often called the gut-brain axis, and the community of bacteria children develop within their gut can influence factors such as neurotransmitter production e.g. serotonin to name just one!

And so much more!

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