Most parents know that feeding children a good, balanced diet is vital for their health and development.
But what’s less well-known is that a key reason for ensuring good nutrition early in life is to nurture children’s microbiome – the trillions of bacteria that live on and in us, but mainly in the gastrointestinal tract.
The microbiome helps control the immune system, and thus how well children fight off infections and whether they develop allergies, as well as regulating the metabolism and even influencing mood.
It also plays a huge role in a healthy digestive system, which helps control weight, sleep and much more.
Largely a product of lifestyle and the environment, the microbiome changes throughout life and is most malleable during early childhood.
Dr Rachael Buck, lead research scientist and gut health expert at healthcare company Abbott, shares three ways to promote a healthy microbiome in both pregnant women and children, giving them a strong foundation for a healthy gut for the rest of their lives.
1 During pregnancy
Emerging research shows a mother’s gut bacteria undergoes natural changes as pregnancy progresses.
These changes in the microbiome promote energy storage in fat tissue and help support the growth of the foetus.
A healthy diet isn’t only good for mum and her microbiome, it’s good for her growing baby too.
So, if pregnancy cravings have you reaching for sweets or the biscuit tin, opt for something healthier instead.
Try to stick to a varied diet with plenty of fibre-packed foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and probiotic-rich foods like yoghurt and sauerkraut.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, kefir (a fermented milk drink) and kimchi (salted and fermented vegetables) are also good choices and are now widely available in supermarkets.
2 Baby’s first 24 hours
How and where a baby’s born, as well as every surface touched in the first 24 hours of life, affects baby’s microbiome, and these early experiences can impact its health well into the future.
From the moment it’s born, a baby’s body is colonised by trillions of microbes given to it by its mother during birth, from her gut and skin and via what baby eats, whether that’s breast milk, formula or both.
Skin-to-skin contact soon after birth promotes nursing and helps establish milk supply, and breast milk itself helps to build a healthy gut too.
Components such as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), a special type of prebiotic and the most abundant ingredient in breast milk after fat and carbohydrate (lactose), help to feed and multiply healthy gut bacteria and work to support a baby’s developing immune system.
Dr Buck says: “Breastfeeding is best for babies and is recommended for as long as possible during infancy, as it provides many benefits to both mother and baby. It’s difficult to reverse the decision not to breastfeed.”
Speak to a health visitor, midwife or doctor for advice on how to feed your baby.
3 Early years
Newborns and young infants start with a limited number of microbes.
However, as babies come into contact with more people and new environments, they acquire additional types, and the composition of their microbiome begins to change and become more distinct.
The types of solid food children are introduced to can also play a big part in the make-up of their microbiome.
Buck says the toddler years are an ideal time to optimise a child’s gut health through diet because then the microbiome stays fairly similar throughout his or her lifetime.
After introducing solid foods – one at a time – to a toddler, offer a variety of nutritious foods including eggs, legumes like lentils, beans, and peas, vegetables and fruit.
Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, parsnips, squash and yucca, whole grains like oats, rice, barley and quinoa, and probiotic-rich gut foods like yoghurt and kefir are also good choices to boost their gut health.