How you can set up a baby’s health and defences for life

young baby in white blanket

There has been a huge leap forward in terms of the research that has come available over the last ten years around the gut and its inhabitants, which are more commonly known as microbiota. The research has focused on the role microbiota play in governing the overall healthy functionality of the body and the immune system. We have also learnt more about the importance of gut formation from the very earliest stages of human development. More specifically, we have learnt that the most crucial period occurs between the time of conception and when a child is around 2-3 years old, by which point gut formation tends to settle.

What happens if this formation is disrupted?

Modern life, unfortunately, has a tendency to get in the way of letting our bodies do their job. I used to think that a ‘bad stomach’ might merely lead to a bit of bloating or nausea. However, research has shown that disruptions to this hugely influential organ can have much bigger consequences, especially when they happen at a very early age. In fact, these disruptions have been linked as a cause of a whole host of diseases that can develop later in life. These range from mood and neurological issues, to allergies, intolerances, other autoimmune conditions, and obesity. All of these conditions are rapidly on the rise in children today, therefore it is important to take the necessary precautions.

Gut formation disruption has even been linked to issues with brain development. Mayer et al noted in the Journal of Neuroscience that alterations in the gut microbiome could play a role in human brain diseases including ASD, anxiety, depression and chronic pain.

What is a ‘disruption’?

Good question! The reality is that the research around what makes a gut ‘healthy’ or ‘not healthy’ is very much evolving. However, what we are sure about is that a healthy gut has a large diversity of microbes, including bacteria, viruses and even fungi. Additionally, having a balanced gut, with no microbe member being overly dominant or lacking, is the way to go.

This combination should, in theory, enable the gut to do one of its primary roles: filtering. When the filter function is compromised (known as leaky gut) you allow undesirable toxins to infiltrate the bloodstream.

The earliest stages matter…

There have been a number of recent studies that defy the idea that a baby’s gut starts to build at birth. In fact, we are seeing more and more evidence that suggests that a baby’s gut will start to develop while in utero. Therefore, if you are pregnant, it is important to ensure that your own gut is in good health, as this can impact the health of your baby’s gut as it develops.

There is also research that suggest that you can improve the makeup of your gut microbiota in as little as 24hrs by changing what you eat. By incorporating a diverse mix of high-fibre foods and prebiotic foods into your diet, you can hugely improve the health of your gut. It is also wise to avoid processed foods and foods containing pesticides.

What can influence the health of a baby’s gut?

Mode of delivery (natural vs. C-section)

Babies that have been born through C-section tend to have a lower complexity of initial bacteria. This can lead to problems, as the healthiest guts are those with the widest diversity of bacteria. Babies born through C-section also tend to have lower initial numbers of what we understand to be ‘good bacteria’ (Bifidobacteria and Bacteroides). They also have a lower number of Cytokines, which are small proteins that play an important role in the behaviour of surrounding cells.

The theory is that these combined factors are the reason behind the links between C-Section birth and higher propensity towards autoimmune conditions, asthma, allergies and obesity.

However, there is no need to worry if you have had a C-section. My own baby was born by C-Section, and it’s important to remember, that amongst other things, a C-Section can be lifesaving and necessary for both mother and child. As well as this, there are steps you can take to compensate for these initial issues, and usually these problems tend to diminish over time.

Type of feeding

There are many reasons why the ‘Breast is Best’ mantra really is true. It’s not easy for everyone, but it is a subject that is well researched. From the perspective of building a healthy gut the science points to breastfeeding as the better feeding option.

Breastfed infants have higher levels of bifidobacteria, which are commonly known as one of the more friendly bacteria because of their protective capabilities. Breast milk also contains promicrobial and antimicrobial agents that promote bacterial balance, which encourage the good and get rid of the bad. Breast milk also contains IgAs, which are types of antibodies that help to prevent infections, allergies and autoimmune diseases. In addition, breast milk also contains natural prebiotics which essentially ‘feed’ the bacteria in the gut.

Antibiotic use

Antibiotics kill bacteria, including those that are found in the gut. There are three types to be aware of. There are prescription antibiotics – which you’ll probably be familiar with. But there are also antibacterial hand-gels/sanitizers and household bleach that you can find in your home. Lastly, you have the antibiotics that are found in foods.

Interestingly, the countries that use disinfectants, antibiotics and prescription drugs the most are those that are seeing the most significant rises in disorders such as autism and allergic diseases.

Evrensel and Ceylon draw a link between this heightened use of drugs and the health of the gut microbe: ‘Effects of growing up in a more hygienic environment and changes in diet are mainly observed in developed countries, where the incidence of allergic diseases and autism is increasing….The diversity of the gut microbiota can change under the influence of drugs, diet and stress’.

Of course, if you have a very serious infection, then antibiotics are absolutely the way to go. However, when it comes to foods, especially meat and fish, you should go organic wherever you can to avoid ingesting any unnecessary antibiotics.

Weaning

Given the fact that a baby’s gut is still in a state of heavy flux, it makes sense to safeguard it as much as possible. Organic, diverse, whole foods without preservatives and foods that are naturally rich in prebiotics are the smart way to go. Meat stock is also recommended by one of the pioneers of gut health, Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride.

Feeding an older child and your own gut

Focus on what you eat. Research has shown that a ‘Western Diet’ is not good for the health of our guts. These are diets that are high in fat (especially animal fat), high in sugar and low in fibre. In fact, the Mediterranean diet has been cited by many as the ‘poster child’ for good health. Why? Well, its mix of all the ‘good things’. It’s not about avoiding one food group or focusing heavily on another. It’s about a diverse mix of vegetables, fruit, carbohydrates (beans and pulses), with only occasional inclusion of meat and fish.

What other foods improve the health of the gut?

  • Foods with prebiotics – The prebiotics found in foods like soybeans, onions and bananas help to feed the existing bacteria in the gut.
  • Fermented Foods – Most of us now know that fermented foods are the heroes of the gut world. Think Sauerkraut, pickles, Kombucha and Kimchi. All you really need to know is that they are super rich in natural probiotics that grow during the fermentation process. If you’re pregnant however, be careful with these types of products and avoid unpasteurised milk.
  • Bone Broth – This has become a bit of a health food craze of late, however, the science behind it isn’t quite compelling. Instead, a meat stock broth might be the better way to go. It is gentler on the stomach and contains proteins that have been proven to help strengthen the intestinal lining and our gut’s filter.

 

Overall, there is a substantial amount of evidence to support the importance of a having a healthy gut from a young age, particularly in new-born babies. Poor gut health can lead to a number of issues that seem to be on the rise, such as allergies, autoimmune conditions, mood disorders and obesity. However, awareness is the first step in the right direction. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to ensure that you put yourself and your baby on the best possible path for optimal gut health.

After 14 years in investment banking Sarah Heywood had her son Matteo, quit the city and set up Better Babies. She felt that there was a lack of impartial science-based information for men and women who are looking to be better equipped for the challenges that modern life now throws at us. Specifically, the challenges to our ability to conceive and have a healthy child. Our environment and lifestyles have changed dramatically in the last few decades, yet advice for conception and pregnancy has not kept pace. 
Better Babies is a conception, pregnancy and early years blog and book (out 2019) dedicated to bringing the latest cutting edge science and medical research to mothers and fathers-to-be in an approachable, practical and digestible way. 
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