We look into how to improve baby’s microbiome during pregnancy and why pooping ourselves during labour may not be so bad.
Gut health is a hot topic in the nutrition world lately, largely because all of the research is pointing to its significant impact on our overall health. From the things we eat, to our genetics, to even the way we are born, there are serious implications for our gut. For the sake of this article, we are going to discuss the latter and find out how to improve baby’s microbiome during the pregnancy.
Let’s start with a brief biology lecture.
What is the microbiome?
The human microbiome is essentially a community of microorganisms that live in and on your body. These communities of microorganisms are responsible for our metabolism, immunity, and hormones, even our development of allergies and the risk for metabolic diseases. There are four microbiomes—oral, placental, gut (the main one), and vaginal microbiota—each of which have specific environments to support the performance of different microorganisms. All of these microbiomes are shaped by environmental conditions, such as pH (especially in the vaginal microbiota), levels of oxygen, availability of nutrients (our diet), as well as the humidity and temperature.
When it comes to baby, the initial development and maturation of the newborn’s microbiome is largely determined through the maternal-offspring exchanges. It’s not to say that you only “get what your mama gave ya” because you can alter your microbiome in adulthood, but there’s a lot we can do to set up baby on the right path.
What’s the Impact of Baby’s Microbiome on their Future Health?
So, what’s so important about ensuring our babies have a healthy gut? Well, our gut bacteria seem to play a role in our immunity, metabolism, and hormones. The maturation of our immune system is really dependent on the bacterial community developed, making the first month of life for babies a critical time for building their immune system and defence mechanisms. Research suggests that having a low diversity bacterial environment in year one is with higher risk of inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes, and atopic diseases, such as atopic dermatitis and allergy.
Specifically, in regards to its link to diabetes and obesity, current studies suggest there’s an association between the microbiota’s role in energy production, low-grade inflammation, and the regulation of fatty acid tissue composition. Specifically, the gut’s production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA), namely acetate, propionate, and butyrate, from the breakdown of dietary fiber, protein, and peptides is associated benefits for body weight, glucose balance, and insulin sensitivity. Not to mention, having an abundance of the good bacteria Bifidobacterium spp. is linked to an anti-inflammatory effect, countering the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines that is observed in obesity and type 2 diabetes. Bottom line: the risk of babies developing metabolic diseases in the future can be decreased by developing and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome starting before conception and continuing onwards through adulthood.
The Impact of Mom’s Health on Her Microbiome
The overall health of the mother and her diet will have an impact on the development of her offspring. Having a low or high BMI are known to influence the composition of maternal microbiome, as well as being linked to risk of preterm birth and gestational hypertension. The good news is that research suggests that starting a healthy diet and activity regime can improve the gut microbiome, regardless of body size or shape.
Lifestyle behaviours, such as smoking, substance use, hygiene practices (poor oral hygiene), frequent douching, frequent intercourse with multiple partners, have all been found to alter the composition of maternal vaginal microbiome by increasing the risk of pathogenic bacterial infection and inflammation.
In addition to lifestyle and health behaviours, the gut microbiome can be influenced by mom’s diet. The Western diet—high in simple carbohydrates, fats, and animal proteins—is consistently linked with a gut microbiome imbalance and a decrease in Bifidobacteria and Bacteroidetes. There is evidence available that enjoying insoluble complex carbohydrates (aka. fibre rich foods), veggies, and protein in your diet can favour the growth of good Bacteroides, Clostridium, and Bifidobacterium. Another study concluded that consuming fermented foods, such as miso and Japanese natto beans, which are a good source of probiotics, can help promote the growth of the good bacteria. It’s even been suggested that consuming probiotic-rich foods during pregnancy may help reduce the risk of preterm birth and gestational diabetes.
In contrast, having a high sugar diet may alter the because sugar interferes with the adhesion of microbes in the intestinal surface, which is required for them to colonize in the gut. Likewise, fat suppresses the growth of these beneficial organisms. One animal study found that a high fat diet significantly reduced the amount of Bacteroides and Bifidobacterium while increasing inflammatory cytokines.
How to Improve Baby’s Microbiome
Vaginal Birth or Caesarean ON BABY’S MICROBIOME
So, if I were to survey 100 pregnant women about their labour and delivery fears, I can promise you that MOST women will say they’re TERRIFIED that they’ll poop their pants. Guess what- most women do! And I’m happy to tell all of you momma to be’s that THIS MAY BE A GOOD THING in some ways!!! Research suggests that delivering vaginally is the ideal scenario for promoting a healthy microbiome because the infant gets exposed to the vaginal and yes- fecal (aka. POOP) microbiota. In other words, that poop your baby is coming into contact with may add to bacterial colonization for baby upon birth. FEARS BE GONE, MOMMAS!!
The resulting environment allows for anaerobes such as Bacteroides and Bifidobacterium to thrive—both of which are important for immune functioning. Infants delivered by caesarean (C-section) miss out on that bacterial colonization of the above-mentioned anaerobes and don’t get exposed to vaginal (or likely fecal) microbes. These infants only acquire microbes found on the maternal skin while vaginal birth provides newborns with microbes similar to the mother’s vaginal microbiome. It’s therefore not surprising that babies born by C-section tend to have higher rates of asthma, allergies and other atopic sensitivities, likely as a result of a compromised immune system.
Okay, so here comes another mom fear. What if you desperately want a vaginal birth (either to help baby’s microbiome and/or for whatever other reason) and suddenly things don’t work out. This is where some families opt for something called “vaginal seeding”. found that vaginal swabbing, or “vaginal seeding”, may partially restore the microbiota of C-section babies to be similar to vaginal birth babies, but it’s important to note that more studies are needed to support the benefits, as well as the risks and potential harm. Available the potential risks of transferring infections and vaginal pathogens. As a safer alternative to vaginal seeding, you may want to try to focus on some of the other methods of improving baby’s microbiome that we outline below.
Breastfeeding and BABY’S Microbiome
Believe it or not, maternal breast milk also has its own diverse microbiome, making it a predominant source for establishing a healthy microbiome in newborns in addition to being an optimal, nutritional source. Breast-fed infants have been found to have Bifidobacteria in abundance, which is vital for promoting immunological and inflammatory responses, and preventing the growth of pathogenic organisms. The cool thing about shaping the baby’s microbiome with breast milk is the co-evolution aspect of the mother and her infant. It’s sort of like two puzzle pieces—the microorganisms that the infant acquired from birth enables its ability to utilize the nutrients found exclusively in breast milk, enhancing its nutrition and promoting the development of a stable and relatively uniform gut microbiome. Where did the microbial population in breast milk come from? Some suggest that it travelled from mom’s gut to the mammary glands due to hormonal changes during and following gestation. Isn’t the body so damn smart?!
While I am a big advocate for “FED is best”, research does suggest that formula, even if given in small amounts during breastfeeding, can disrupt the colonization of the neonatal intestinal microbiota, thereby reducing the benefits that you would otherwise get from exclusively breastfeeding. In other words, formula fed infants tend to have a higher amounts of Enterococci and Clostridia dominating the gut microbiota instead of the beneficial Bifidobacteria. The good news for mommas who can’t or chose not to breastfeed is that we now have infant formulas that contain probiotics to help support the neonatal gut microbiome of formula fed babes.
Solid Foods and Baby’s Microbiome
Research suggests that the type and timing of introducing solid foods can also affect baby’s microbiome composition. Early introduction of complimentary foods can disrupt the formation of gut microbiota, but when introduced at the right time, solid foods play a significant role in shaping and maturing the microbiota composition to include species that are found in adults. This maturation initiates the infant’s vitamin and carbohydrate utilization, as well as vitamin biosynthesis.
It’s recommended that parents introduce meats and iron-fortified cereals as one of the first complementary foods from 6 months onwards after breastfeeding to help reduce the risk of anemia. However, you’ll want to make sure not to overdo the iron, as an excessive amount of iron in the intestinal tract as it may initiate inflammation. Only two human have found the association of iron supplementation and gut microbiota composition alteration.
As baby gets older, you’ll definitely want to focus on including both prebiotics and probiotics in baby’s diet. Prebiotics are the fuel for your baby’s healthy bacteria, and are most commonly found in fibre-rich foods like veggies, beans and whole grains. Probiotics are the bacteria themselves and are found naturally in fermented foods. Kefir and yogurt are great options that are child friendly, just make sure to look for options without added sugar.
Over-Sanitizing and Baby’s Microbiome
Now let’s talk about dirt. I’m admittedly a huge fan of the so-called “hygiene hypothesis”, or the idea that our obsession with cleanliness is one of the causes of the rise in food allergies and other immune disorders. I know it’s hard not to want everything to be spick and span with your babe, but research suggests that easing up on the cleanliness factor may help. One study actually found that parents who just sucked on their baby’s pacifier to clean it off (rather than sterilizing it) had babies with less eczema at 1 ½ years of age.
Having access to household pets is another way to improve baby’s microbiome. One study found that pet ownership increased the abundance of Rhuminococcus and Oscillospira bacteria, both of which have been associated with lower risk of childhood allergies and obesity. Likewise, research has found that farm living can also help improve family’s immune response.
So moms, put down the hand sanitizer and let the little one get outside to get dirty!
Antibiotics and the Baby’s Microbiome
It’s often a common criticism of modern medicine that antibiotics can be overprescribed and overused. Now, sometimes they’re absolutely imperative and in fact, can save lives, but they do have some consequences for our baby’s microbiome. Unfortunately, site specific, and can cause an overall reduction in microbial diversity, both of the bad and the good bacteria. The use of antibiotics before, during, and after pregnancy has therefore been found to significantly reduce bacterial diversity which, in turn, disrupts the development of the baby’s microbiome. One that early and repetitive antibiotic exposure to the baby alters the microbiota composition by decreasing the number of good Bifidobacteria and Bacteroides, which are bacteria associated with reducing the risk of obesity.
Bottom Line on How to Improve Baby’s Microbiome
The good news is that regardless of your birthing circumstances, there are a lot of little ways you can help improve baby’s microbiome. Here’s some easy takeaways on our recommendations:
- If possible, consider a vaginal birth first.
- If possible, consider breastfeeding for the first year. If using formula, look for ones that are fortified with probiotics.
- Complementary foods are recommended to be introduced at 6 months, specifically iron-rich foods to prevent iron-deficiency, and fibre rich foods to feed our bacteria.
- Minimize unnecessary use of antibiotics as it may disrupt bacterial diversity.
- Mommas-to-be should try to maintain healthy lifestyle behaviours and diet before and during pregnancy.
- Expose your kids to the great outdoors and try to go easy on over-sanitizing them.
Become an Abbey’s Kitchen Subscriber
What are your thoughts on improving your baby’s microbiome?
Have you tried any of the techniques listed?
Leave me a comment below!
Contribution by RD2B Amy Choi
Updated on October 23rd, 2020
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.