As a primary care doctor, I think about my patients’ microbiomes all the time. As a medical liaison at uBiome, which is the leading microbial genomics company in the industry and a startup based in San Francisco, I help study and identify relevant microbes for people’s health. As a mom, I deal with microbes every day in and on my kids!
The more I learn, the more I realize that we moms have a lot of reasons to thank bacteria. From the day our babies are born, microbes live in and on our babies, providing important immune functions, essential nutrients, and protection from disease. These “good bacteria” are not only essential to digestive health but to overall health as well.
Day by day, these microbes grow, and as our babies grow up, these microbes will play really important roles in their digestive health, including their risk of becoming obese and having diabetes, their risk of cancer and heart disease, and perhaps even their mood and happiness levels.
If we think about it, as we raise our children, we are also raising trillions of bacterial species. Infancy and the first couple years of life could arguably be the most important time for establishing this important microbiome.
Here are the top 7 steps to raising healthier microbes and a healthier kid:
Start thinking about it during pregnancy: A woman’s microbiome is not something to which her OB-GYN will be giving much attention but an expecting mother SHOULD! A pregnant woman’s gut microbiome, as well as her vaginal microbiome, change throughout pregnancy and can be impacted by her hormones, as well as her diet and the medications she takes. It’s even thought that vaginal microbiomes are associated with fertility and preterm birth risks. Mom’s microbiome will be providing the first seeding of baby’s microbiome… a very important job!
It’s such an important factor, Dr. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg of The Sonnenburg Lab at Stanford University even note that “during infancy the microbial equivalent of a land grab is occurring in the gut. Species that are successful in establishing early can persist for decades, and perhaps throughout life.”
Consider your baby’s birth experience: The baby’s birth exposes him or her to the first microbes. A vaginal delivery exposes the baby to the mother’s vaginal flora, helping establish healthy flora that protect the intestine and help baby digest milk. Cesarian births expose babies first to skin and environmental flora. Studies suggest that it could one day become common practice to wipe down c-section babies with mom’s vaginal flora.
Feed breastmilk: When it’s possible, breast is best. This study recently published in JAMA shows the importance of breastfeeding to help with seeding the infant gut with beneficial bacteria. Breast milk contains important prebiotics (food ingredients that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms) called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) that help healthy bacteria grow in the infant gut. Breast milk is not sterile but actually contains a lot of beneficial bacterial in addition to antibodies important for immune health.
Think about baby’s diet: As your baby grows and begins eating solids, what he or she is fed really matters. This recent article shows how quickly and significantly diet impacts the microbiome. Feeding kids plenty of whole foods with fiber, veggies, fruits, and nuts, and avoiding sugars and processed foods, is hugely important.
Consider giving probiotics: For some babies, there may be some benefit to giving infant probiotics. Evidence supports this particularly for colic, reflux, or constipation. Once kids start solids, foods with natural probiotics, like yogurt, are a great addition to their diet.
Avoid Antibiotic Overuse: Antibiotics can be life saving when used in the right situations. We’re also learning more and more about the potential dangers of antibiotic use and how they can damage our healthy microbes. Their use should be limited to those times when they are truly needed for a bacterial infection. For those times when antibiotics are needed (and yes, there will likely be those times at some point!), focus on replenishing gut flora with prebiotics and probiotics.
Don’t keep your kids too clean! Playing outside and getting hands dirty is important! Exposure to pets helps establish beneficial bacteria that have been shown to be negatively associated with allergies and eczema. Studies have shown that simply owning a dog has an impact on the shared microbes between people living together. If you don’t have a pet, find friends who do!
If you want to find out more about the health of your baby’s microbiome, you can! You can even monitor your baby’s microbiome over time, such as before and after a dietary change or a course of antibiotics.
Every day we’re learning more about how your babe’s microbiome affects long term health. I’m excited to share more on this in the future and in the meantime, don’t forget to care for your baby and your trillions of microbes!