It's a simple fact: kids tend to get sick a lot when they’re young. In fact, children under age 6 get an average of six to eight colds a year, plus ear infections, bouts of diarrhea and other illnesses. On top of that, some also have allergies, asthma and eczema.
While there's a lot you can do to keep germs from wreaking havoc on your baby’s immune system, one of the best-kept secrets in preventing illness and boosting the immune system can be found in the gut – or, more specifically, the gut microbiome.
What Is the Gut Microbiome?
The microbiome is an enormous collection of approximately 100 trillion microbes, or microscopic organisms that live on and in your body, and most of them are found in the gastrointestinal tract, known simply as "the gut."
Bacteria are a class of microbes that are found in the gut. Some types of bacteria which are harmful can lead to infections and diseases while others are healthy and helpful to boost immunity, improve digestion, and even help cut down on crying time in colicky babies, among other benefits.
When there’s a balance between these healthy and harmful bacteria, your baby’s immune system is better prepared to fight off what may come.
The Gut at Every AgeYour baby is changing and growing by leaps and bounds each day, and his gut is no different.
- The First 24 Hours
When your baby is born, his body is colonized by microbes from the birth canal and mom’s gut, skin and breast milk. The types of microbes differ depending on whether your baby was born vaginally or by cesarean section, in a hospital, birthing center or at home; and by nearly every surface he comes into contact with during the first 24 hours after birth.
- The First 6 Months
During the first few months of life, your baby’s microbiome will have only a few types of microbial species. Yet as he meets new people, goes to new places and explores new environments—whether it’s grandma’s house or a neighborhood park—he’ll get additional species, and the composition of his microbes will change and become more diverse. As your baby starts to reach for toys, the microbes can even differ between his two hands. The diversity of microbes is also affected by whether your baby is fed breast milk, milk formula, or both.
- Early Childhood
Throughout the pre-school years, your child’s microbes will continue to change and look a lot like those of his other family members. By 3-years-old however, his microbiome becomes more stable. Yet a fever, a course of antibiotics, or new types of foods can disrupt and change the bacterial makeup in his gut.
In adults, the microbiome changes yet again. As a result of hormonal shifts during pregnancy, breastfeeding, weaning and menopause, the microbiome of a woman can look very different from a man’s.
How to Nurture Your Child’s Immune System
One of the best things you can do to help your child’s immune system to develop and keep him healthy now and well into the future is to optimize his gut health. Here are 6 easy and simple things that can help:
Studies show skin-to-skin contact, or “kangaroo care,” especially in the first few days after your baby is born, provides a long list of health benefits, not the least of which is gut health. Skin-to-skin contact from both parents gives your baby many of the microbes he needs.
What is 2'-FL?
Breastfeeding is the gold standard in infant nutrition, and it's the number-one way to support your baby's immune system. One reason mother's milk is so unique and potent may be due in part to oligosaccharides, special prebiotics that are abundant in breast milk. The unique oligosaccharides feed the good bacteria in your child’s gut—where 70% of the immune system lives—and, research has shown that milk oligosaccharides in breast milk help to support baby's immune system and digestive system.
2’-fucosyllactose (2’-FL) is by far the most prevalent oligosaccharide identified in most mother’s milk; and extensive emerging research on 2'-FL suggests it may provide positive health benefits for the gut microbiome, brain development, infectious disease, immunity and allergies.
Backed by 15 years of milk oligosaccharide research, Abbott is the first to include 2’-FL in milk formula.
Choose a Variety of Fruits and Vegetables
As your baby starts eating solid food, offer only whole foods and whole food purees—including plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains. Bananas and asparagus are rich in prebiotics, which help probiotics—found in fermented foods like yogurt and kefir—do their jobs.
Become a Dog Lover
Playing with a family or neighborhood pet even has its benefits to overall immune health—helping to diversify the species of bacteria in your child’s gut. In fact, studies show that safe interaction with pets can change the composition and diversity of the microbes in a child's gut and may even reduce his risk for asthma and eczema.
Let Your Child Get Dirty
Encourage your child to play outside and explore the outdoors, which can help him get a dose of healthy bacteria. You don’t have to overdo cleanliness, but you should always make sure your child washes his hands after using the bathroom, before meals and when he’s sick.
Exercise may also diversify your child’s gut microbes. Make sure he gets at least 60 minutes of activity each day at the park, the playground or an indoor play space on brisk days.
Build your child’s immune system
From the moment a child enters the world, the gut microbiome begins to develop. The first years of life are an especially critical time for growing trillions of bacteria to benefit the immune system. With a few simple steps, parents can play an important role in helping to build a child's immune system – by first building a healthy gut – and laying the foundation for a lifetime of good health.