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Gut health and the complex ecosystem of bacteria in our bodies—our microbiome—has been a popular topic in recent years.

It’s something that’s particularly important for babies, as your little one’s unique and diverse set of microbes establishes itself in the first three years, setting them on the path to good health.

The more you know about the development of your baby’s microbiome, the more you can influence it positively.

What Is the Microbiome?

The human microbiome is the collection of all the microbes that live in and on our body (technically, the genes of these microbes), that contribute to our individual genetic makeup.
Many of these live in our digestive system, helping our bodies function efficiently, and are also referred to as gut flora or gut microbiota.

The Magic First Three Years

Your baby’s microbiome is initiated in the womb and can set the tone for their future health.

Its continued development is then affected by things such as environmental exposure, diet and nutrition, infections and antibiotic usage. 

By three years of age, the microbiome has a solid foundation for the body’s biological processes.  

As it contains the highest diversity and concentration of microbes, the gut has been the scientific focus for establishing a healthy baby’s microbiome.

Our microbiome has the power to affect nearly every aspect of our health and wellbeing.

So we need to ensure the balance is always skewed towards good bacteria over the bad to support their immune system and absorb the nutrients in their food.

As well as this, the body’s microbiome has the power to affect nearly every aspect of their health and wellbeing, from mood and behavior, to skin and cognitive development. 

This is why it’s critical to encourage a healthy microbiome at a very young age.

Baby breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is a key part of developing the infant gut microbiome.

How Can We Influence Our Baby’s Microbiome?

1. Think of mom’s health, too

Scientists originally thought that the uterus was a sterile place. 

But recently they’ve discovered bacteria in the amniotic fluid, the placenta and even in the fetus itself, revealing that a baby’s microbiome is passed on in the womb.

It’s believed some bacteria could travel up the birth canal and into the uterus, but some studies have even found bacteria from mom’s mouth in the placenta. 

Researchers believe that the healthier the mom’s diet and lifestyle (and dental hygiene!), the greater effect this will have on her baby’s bacterial development.

Some studies have even found bacteria from mom’s mouth in the placenta.

Taking antibiotics during pregnancy for example could kill off some of the baby’s helpful microorganisms and unbalance their gut microbes. 

Studies have found a relationship between prenatal antibiotics in mom and an increase in her child’s risk of asthma, wheezing, and allergic diseases.

Antibiotic use can’t always be avoided, of course, but strong evidence linking it to allergies and other health problems down the line may make you think twice about using medication as a first resort.

2.  Vaginal delivery

As your baby moves down the birth canal during vaginal delivery, they’re exposed to beneficial vaginal flora that can act as an initial inoculation and help shape the newborn microbiome.

A C-section delivery, however, doesn’t allow for this transmission of bacteria, so the baby is potentially missing out on this opportunity.

Scientific studies have associated the cesarean section with an increased risk of asthma, allergies, obesity, and even problems with cognitive development.

To counter this, the recent trend of vaginal seeding has emerged, where mothers are requesting their newborns be swabbed with vaginal fluid immediately after a caesarean.

This sounds logical in theory, but not all doctors agree: there isn’t as yet any scientific evidence that proves vaginal seeding works—and the practice could even pass on infections and diseases.

Skin-to-skin contact transfers helpful microbes to your baby

3. Skin-to-skin contact

Many more microbes are passed on to your baby after birth. 

That initial skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby isn’t just about establishing a bond—it helps with the transfer of helpful skin microbes too, which can immediately get working on protecting your baby’s largest organ.

4. Breastfeeding

While not every mother can or wants to breastfeed, breast milk is a key part of developing the infant gut microbiome.

Aside from being extremely nutritious, mom’s milk also contains probiotics and human milk oligosaccharides—a type of sugar and prebiotic that promotes the growth of specific microbes.

Even though modern infant formula can contain probiotics and prebiotics, the medical community agrees that breast milk is uniquely beneficial for the baby’s microbiome. 

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months and supplemental feeding up to two and beyond.

Did You Know?

We have as many microbes as human cells

A child’s intestines will eventually grow to contain more bacteria than the number of cells in their body.
Scientists estimate that the average human male is made up of about 30 trillion cells and contains almost 40 trillion bacteria!

5. Supplement the diet

If you’re baby isn’t drinking breast milk or has been exposed to antibiotics, supplementing with probiotic drops or a formula that has both probiotics and prebiotics could help replenish the missing gut bacteria.

6. Introduce healthy solids

When the time comes to introduce you baby to solid food, focus on nutrient-rich foods so that your baby’s gut flora can continue to develop and grow.

Yogurt with live cultures has probiotics, and many fruits and vegetables are prebiotic foods.

Here’s a list of we’ve put together of probiotic and prebiotic foods.

Research Is Ongoing

It’s important to remember that there are no guarantees—a vaginally birthed, breastfed baby could still develop allergies while a C-section baby doesn’t. 

Science has only scratched the surface when it comes to the fascinating topic of the human microbiome. 

But rather than let your child play microbial catch up as an adult, you can use the little we do know to help enhance your baby’s microbiome during these critical years, and kick-start a lifetime of healthier living.