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Importance of Gut Health for Infants

Rachel O'Reilly

By: Erica Favela

There are over one hundred trillion - yes, trillion - microorganisms living in our guts.

To put that into perspective, that’s more than the number of cells that make up our body. For that reason, some might say we’re actually more microbes than we are human.

But that number is not something to be afraid of! These bacteria aren’t the bad kind that we all try killing with hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes. Most of the bacteria in our bodies are good bacteria that have evolved with us and allowed us to thrive.

Most of these microbes live in our large intestine, and new research is uncovering just how important these bacteria are. The gut microbiota is responsible for:

  • Digesting and converting dietary fiber into healthful compounds

  • Aiding in the absorption of minerals

  • Supplying nutrients for cells that build strong intestinal lining

  • Keeping our immune system strong (70-80% of the body’s immune cells are in the gut!)

Good gut bacteria can even have an impact on our mood and behavior. According to Dr. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, authors of the groundbreaking book, The Good Gut, “chemicals produced by the microbiota even communicate directly with our central nervous system through the brain-gut axis.” This is why some scientists refer to the gut as our “second brain.” Next time you have a “gut feeling” about something, you can thank your gut flora!

Considering the multi-faceted ways in which our gut health can determine our overall health, it’s imperative to create an environment for your baby’s flora to flourish.

Healthy Gut = Healthy Baby  

While some scientists believe that a baby’s gut flora begins in the womb, a large dose of healthy microorganisms is attained as a baby passes through the birth canal. Delivered vaginally, a baby will naturally consume some of the mother’s native bacteria, and so begins the baby’s own bacterial ecosystem. Studies show that vaginally birthed babies contain more Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus bacteria; types of bacteria that help the baby’s intestinal and immune system mature, and help keep away problematic bacteria. Having a hefty set of helpful bacteria from the beginning is essential for creating a strong foundation of health-promoting flora.

In the case of babies born in a cesarean, the baby’s first exposure to bacteria will likely be somewhere in the hospital. Studies show that C-section babies have more Proteobacteria and less Bifidobacteria, which can be less than ideal. C-section deliveries can be absolutely necessary, and it just means it’s important to consider practices that support the baby’s colonization of healthy bacteria, such as a probiotic supplement, following birth. When choosing a probiotic supplement, be sure it is appropriate for infants, and seek advice from your doctor or functional medical practitioner.

Breast Milk

Breast milk is one of the best foods for growing a baby’s gut bacteria and supporting its proliferation. Along with numerous other health-promoting nutrients, breast milk contains human milk oligosaccharides (HMO’s). HMO’s are actually indigestible for us humans, but serve as an excellent food source for the gut microbiota. HMO’s are helpful for feeding another set of bacteria that helps to digest plant fibers, which is crucial once the baby begins eating solid foods.

If breastfeeding is a challenge or impossible, even small amounts of breast milk will be helpful. Baby formula companies try their best to mimic the nutrients of real breast milk; however, manufactured nutrients differ in chemical structure, and recreating the extremely complex nutrients, such as HMO’s, depends on scientific research that is still relatively new. Attaining breast milk from a milk bank, even to supplement formula, will be helpful for the baby’s first year.

It’s important to keep those gut bacteria flourishing from infancy into adulthood. Learn more of the benefits of gut-healthy foods and get a recipe for easy, delicious Gut Health Gummies for your toddler (and yourself) here.