Can you believe how fast your little one is growing? From a tiny newborn not so long ago, your baby is now rapidly approaching the half-year mark. You’ll notice many “firsts” during this period: from adorable smiles and crawling, to the first tooth and becoming ready for weaning at around six months of age. You might be worried about your baby getting sick for the first time too, especially if he/she has to go to Infant Care. After all, a baby’s immune system is developing to take on the challenges of being exposed to various disease-causing germs. However, are all bacteria dangerous?
Not all bacteria are scary
Not all bacteria are scary
It is true that bacteria and viruses are responsible for many infections. However, there are many microorganisms living inside your baby’s gut that are actually good for health. Known as your baby’s microbiome, this “community” of microbes consists of both beneficial (symbiotic) and possibly harmful (pathogenic) microorganisms including bacteria, viruses and fungi. A baby’s first exposure to these microorganisms is thought to be during birth as the baby passes through mum’s birth canal in a vaginal birth. In a healthy body, there is a balance of bacteria in which there is more of “good” gut bacteria to keep the “bad” ones at bay. However, when the balance is disrupted, for example, by an unhealthy diet or illness, the immune system may get compromised, making the body more vulnerable to sickness.1
What is a healthy gut and how does it help the immune system?
The gut is a term for the gastrointestinal (GI) tract that includes the stomach, small intestine and colon. The GI tract is responsible for breaking down and absorbing nutrients from the food we eat, as well as eliminating waste and toxins, so that the body can function normally and stay healthy.
A healthy gut is characterised by a robust and balanced microbiome containing adequate numbers of “good” bacteria2 and other microbes. In addition, a large proportion of the immune system can be found in the lining of the GI tract.3 The immune system and gut bacteria work together to keep the body healthy. For example, the gut microbiome “trains” immune cells called T-cells to learn the difference between healthy body tissue and dangerous “invaders”. Recent research has also found that the gut microbiome may even influence the way the immune system responds to the COVID-19 virus.4
Now that you know the importance of a healthy gut for your little one’s immunity and overall health, how can you ensure good gut health in your child?
Weaning to nurture a healthy gut
What you give your baby to eat during the weaning stage is key to ensuring a healthy gut and overall good health. You can do this by nourishing gut microbes with prebiotics, and adding more live microorganisms to your baby’s microbiome through probiotics.5
Prebiotics are found in most fruits and vegetables, as well as legumes and other plant-based foods. You may think of them as food for gut microbes. Prebiotic typically contain complex carbohydrates like fibre, and such carbohydrates are not digestible. They pass through the gut while nourishing the microbes that live there. There are plenty of prebiotic-rich foods6 you can prepare for your six-month-old baby as he/she goes through the weaning phase, including:
- Green peas: Steam lightly and mash to a puree.
- Chickpeas: Boil or steam and when soft, puree. You could add other vegetables like steamed carrot to the mix. Thin out the puree if needed with water or milk.
- Lentils: Make a lentil and rice porridge.
- Fruits: Apple, pear, orange, banana or mango puree.
- Grains: Oats, barley and couscous.
Do keep in mind not to give your baby too much fibre-rich foods as he/she starts weaning, as these may overwhelm the immature digestive system. Instead, gradually add such foods to your little one’s diet.
Probiotics mostly come as supplements, formula milk, and yoghurt. Your child’s paediatrician will be able to advise you if probiotic supplements can be given to your little one.
Other ways of nurturing baby gut health
In addition to nutrition, there are some other ways to boost child immune system development as well as gut health.
Get a pet: A study7 involving over 750 infants showed that owning a pet was linked with an increase in two types of beneficial gut microbes – Ruminococcus and Oscillospira. Do make sure your family is ready for the responsibility of caring for a pet though, before getting one.
Avoid antibiotics as much as possible: Prolonged courses of antibiotics can throw off the balance that exists in your baby’s microbiome by killing good bacteria.8 Unless prescribed by a doctor, avoid giving antibiotics to your baby.
Allow contact with the environment: As your baby starts crawling and uses his/her senses to explore and learn, you might feel the need to sterilise and clean everything in your baby’s environment. But it’s through exposure to both good and bad bugs that your little one’s immune system will get stronger. As long as you support your baby’s gut health with proper nutrition, there’s no need to sanitise everything your baby comes into contact with.
1 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Microbiome. Accessed on 24th February, 2022 from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/microbiome/
2 VicHealth. How to improve your gut health. Accessed on 24th February, 2022 from https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/be-healthy/how-to-improve-your-gut-health
3 Fields, H. The Gut: Where bacteria and the immune system meet. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed on 24th February, 2022 from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/research/advancements-in-research/fundamentals/in-depth/the-gut-where-bacteria-and-immune-system-meet
4 British Medical Journal. Make-up of gut microbiome may influence COVID-19 severity and immune response. Accessed on 24th February, 2022 from https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/make-up-of-gut-microbiome-may-influence-covid-19-severity-and-immune-response/
5 Mayo Clinic. Prebiotics, probiotics and your health. Published on 21st, February, 2021. Accessed on 24th February, 2022 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/prebiotics-probiotics-and-your-health/art-20390058
6 Monash University. Prebiotic diet: FAQs. Accessed on 24th February, 2022 from https://www.monash.edu/medicine/ccs/gastroenterology/prebiotic/faq
7 Tun, H. et al. Exposure to household furry pets influences the gut microbiota of infants at 3–4 months following various birth scenarios. Microbiome. Published on 6th April, 2017. Accessed on 22nd April, 2022 from https://microbiomejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40168-017-0254-x
8 McDonnell et all. Association between antibiotics and gut microbiome dysbiosis in children: systematic review and meta-analysis. Gut Microbes. Published in December 2021. Accessed on 24th April, 2022 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33651651/