Although you cannot see it, even whilst your baby is in the womb their gut microbiome is developing. This is the conception of their gut flora in a process that will continue throughout their life(1). With 70% of the body’s immune cells residing in the gastrointestinal tract(2) , the development of a thriving microbiome within the first few years of life is essential to encourage appropriate immune responses. Poor gut health has been linked to the development of allergies and atopic symptoms as well as other health conditions(3,4), so what can you do to support your baby’s immune system development?
1. Mode of delivery
A wealth of evidence suggests that babies receive an influx of beneficial bacteria as they pass down the birth canal in a normal vaginal delivery. An American study(5) compared the gut flora of babies born by vaginal delivery to those born by Caesarean section (C- section). They found that those born by C-section had almost none of the lactic acid producing bacteria Lactobacillus, considered to be essential for a healthy flora. Furthermore, babies born by C-section have been seen to have a greater risk of developing allergic conditions like eczema or asthma(4). As a result, having a vaginal birth seems pretty important to guarantee your baby gets an influx of beneficial bacteria. On the other hand, if you have had a C-section there still things you can do to help your baby’s development.
Studies have shown breastfeeding allows beneficial bacteria species from the mother’s gut to populate the baby’s microbiome(6). A recent review highlighted just how important breastfeeding is for your baby’s development. They noted that formula feeding your baby seems to increase the numbers of pro-inflammatory bacteria in the gut, whereas breast milk raises levels of anti-inflammatory bacteria and reduces intestinal inflammation(7). Although the impact of formula feeding for short periods of time is not yet known, the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months to ensure your baby gets all the nutrients necessary for development(8).
A 2017 review(9) documented how children growing up on farms, particularly in early life are found to be at decreased risk of asthma and other atopic conditions. This is thought to be due to the microbe rich environment found on farms, meaning the child is exposed to them as they mature and develop some level of desensitisation. Even if you do not live in a farm, having siblings or a family pet have been seen to have this same effect in helping to train the immune system(10).
4. Friendly bacteria supplements
- Stout et al (2013) Identification of intracellular bacteria in the basal plate of the human placenta in term and preterm gestations. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 208(3):226
- Montalban-Arques A et al. Selective Manipulation of the Gut Microbiota Improves Immune Status in Vertebrates, Frontiers in Immunology. 2013. 9;6:512.
- Helander, H. F. & Fandriks, L. (2014) Surface area of the digestive tract. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology. Vol 49: 6.
- Henry Ford Health System. Babies born by C-section at risk of developing allergies. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 February 2013.
- Maria G Dominguez-Bello, (2016) Partial restoration of the microbiota of cesarean-born infants via vaginal microbial transfer.
- Jost, T., Lacroix, C., Braegger, C. P., Rochat, F. and Chassard, C. (2013), Vertical mother–neonate transfer of maternal gut bacteria via breastfeeding. Environmental Microbiology.
- The Influence of Early Infant-Feeding Practices on the Intestinal Microbiome and Body Composition in Infants. Aifric O’Sullivan, Marie Farver and Jennifer T. Smilowitz. Nutrition and Metabolic Insights 2015.
- World Health Organisation- Breastfeeding https://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/
- C. Ober, A. Sperling, E. Mutius. Immune development and environment: lessons from Amish and Hutterite children. Current Opinion in Immunology. 2017
- Strachan DP. Hay fever, hygiene, and household size. BMJ. 1989;299(6710):1259–1260.
- Exploring the role of gut bacteria in digestion. (2010) phys.org/news/2010-08-exploring-role-gut-bacteria-digestion.html
- Li Y. Epigenetic Mechanisms Link Maternal Diets and Gut Microbiome to Obesity in the Offspring.Front Genet. 2018 Aug 27;9:342.
- Hou YP, HE QQ, OuYang HM. Biomed Res. 2017;2017:7585989. Human Gut Microbiota Associated with Obesity in Chinese Children and Adolescents.
- Ong TG, Gordon M, Banks SSC, Thomas MR, Akobeng AK. Probiotics to prevent infantile colic. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2019, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD012473.
- Stojkovic, A., & Simovic, M. A. (2016). Clinical trial/experimental study (consort compliant): Optimal time period to achieve the effects on synbiotic-controlled wheezing and respiratory infections in young children. Serbian Journal of Management, 38-43.