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Are you expecting a new arrival in the family? Or have you recently given birth and want to give your baby the best start in life? One of the best things you can do is to look after the 4.4 trillion of bacteria that live in their gut! Let’s find out how probiotics can support your baby’s immune system, digestion and development from birth and through childhood.
There are approximately 39 trillion microbial organisms living in an adult human body,1 and they are collectively referred to as our microbiome. Having such a large community of other organisms living inside us might sound somewhat scary, but we have evolved together and depend on each other2. These bacteria, also called probiotics, live, eat and reproduce in our gut and their activity supports our own health in multiple ways.
Up until recently, it was believed that a baby’s first exposure to bacteria occurred during birth. But a recent study has identified a unique placental microbiome to which the baby is already in contact with in the uterus.3 However, the impact of this microbiome is still unclear, and the most significant exposure is still believed to be to the mother’s vaginal microbiome during natural birth or to the hospital environment in the case of a C-section delivery. This initial exposure will determine the composition of the baby’s gut and is crucial to enable beneficial bacterial to colonise it and help build the newborn’s immunity.
The baby’s diet and exposure to the environment in the first months and years continue to shape the microbiome until around 3 years of age, after which it settles into an adult-like microbiome.4 Once fully established, the composition of this microbiome is relatively stable but can be affected by the use of antibiotics, infections, and a whole host of dietary and lifestyle factors.
As already touched upon, the first factor affecting the infant’s microbiome is the method of birth. Compared to babies born vaginally, babies born by C-section have reduced populations of Bifidobacterium5 , a type of bacteria associated with health benefits and a stronger immune system6.
How a newborn is fed can also majorly impact the development of the gut microbiome during the first few months of life.7 Breast milk informs the baby’s immune system about the environment8 and provides beneficial bacteria9,10 which are transferred from the mother’s gut to the mammary glands.11 Breast milk also contains large amounts of oligosaccharides, a type of carbohydrate, that function as a fertiliser for beneficial bacteria in the gut and helps to promote their activity12.
Early use of antibiotics can also reduce the number and diversity of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
A balanced and diverse microbiome is essential to help program the immune system of new born babies, so it is able to respond to pathogens, but at the same time, does not overreact to environmental allergens and to foods introduced during weaning.
The beneficial bacteria form a physical barrier in the gut and prevent pathogens from entering the body. They also keep the immune system in alert so it can respond quickly and effectively to invaders. Numerous studies have shown that when children are supplemented with probiotics, they get fewer colds 13 and respiratory tract infections,14 and recover more quickly when they get ill.15
An imbalanced microbiome following birth by C-section can double the risk of developing egg and milk intolerances,16 a factor involved in the development of both eczema and asthma. Antibiotic use during infancy can also increase the risk of developing allergic diseases,17 asthma18 and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) later in life.19
The first thing to do if you are expecting a baby is to look after your own microbiome by supplementing with probiotics that are suitable during pregnancy, and by increasing your intake of fibre-rich foods. This will help to ensure your baby benefits from your beneficial bacteria during birth and breastfeeding. If a C-section is planned or performed in an emergency, you can give your baby a probiotic supplement straight from birth to support their gut microbiome.
You can supplement your baby with probiotics that are well researched and safe for their immature gut. One landmark study found that babies supplemented with a blend of 4 strains of bacteria (including Lactobacillus paracasei and salivarius), at 10 billion per day for 6 months were 57% less likely to develop allergic eczema than those receiving placebo and 44% less likely to develop allergic reaction to pollen, cow’s milk, egg, and house dust mite.20
In premature babies, supplementation with probiotics has also been shown to halve the risk of a severe and fatal condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, which is common in preterm infants.21
Once your baby starts weaning, slowly introduce a variety of fruits and vegetables rich in prebiotic fibres, such as avocado, banana, onions and leeks.
You can also introduce fermented foods in small amounts which naturally contain beneficial bacteria, such as organic yoghurt or kefir.
Lastly, if your baby needs to take antibiotics, giving them a probiotic supplement both during and after treatment can help to reduce disruption to their gut bacteria and the risk of side effects. Just make sure that they take the probiotic supplement at least 2 hours away from the antibiotics to protect the beneficial bacteria.
A great, convenient way to support your baby’s health is by giving them a well-researched probiotic supplement which has been shown to be both safe and effective in newborns.
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2Ley RE et al. Worlds within worlds: evolution of the vertebrate gut microbiota. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2008; 6(10):776–788.
3Aagaard K et al. The placenta harbors a unique microbiome. Sci Transl Med. 2014; 21;6(237):237ra65
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16 Koplin J et al. Is caesarean delivery associated with sensitization to food allergens and IgE-mediated food allergy: a systematic review. Pediatric Allergy Immunol. 2008, 682–87
17 Farooqi IS et al. Early Childhood Infection and Atopic disorder. Thorax 1998; 53:927-932
18 Celedon AC et al. Antibiotic use in the first year of life and asthma in early childhood. Clin Exp Allergy. 2004;34:1011–6
19 Kronman MP et al. Antibiotic exposure and IBD development among children: a population-based cohort study. Pediatrics 2012;130:e794–803.
20 Allen SJ et al. Probiotics in the prevention of eczema: a randomised controlled trial. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2014; 99(11): 1014–1019
21 Olsen R et al. Prophylactic Probiotics for Preterm Infants: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Neonatology. 2016; 109(2):105-12.