Key message: Gut health is an important factor in the wellbeing of mothers and their babies. Researchers have discovered that gut health starts as early as in the womb, and can be influenced by factors including diet during pregnancy, medicines given in the first few years of life, and birth and feeding choices.
Action point: Watch the documentary Microbirth, a fascinating documentary on how the events at birth shape our future.
Nurturing the health of our little ones also means taking care of another tiny creature – our microbiome
We all want our babies to have the best possible start in life. Most of us know the choices we make during pregnancy and the first few years of our babies’ lives affect their long-term health. Now science is discovering that baby’s health may well start in an often-overlooked area of the body – the gut.
In the past decade there has been growing awareness of the important role of the human microbiome – all the bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on and in our bodies. Imbalances in this population, which lives in many of our tissues but is particularly concentrated in the gut, have been linked to diseases from diabetes to dementia.
Researchers are now finding that gut health starts as early as in the womb, and can be influenced by factors including diet during pregnancy, medicines given in the first few years of life, and birth and feeding choices.
Check out these three research facts about infant and mother gut health:
Research fact one: A mother’s diet may have a significant role to play in their unborn baby’s immunity.
Until recently it was generally thought that babies are born with a sterile gut and they pick up microbes on their journey through their mother’s vagina which migrate to colonise the gut. Additional microbes are collected from their environment over the first few years of life. This theory was challenged when bacteria were found in the meconium, a baby’s first stool passed within hours of their birth.
Now, thanks to a new US study, we have a clue to where these bugs are coming from. The study found that the placenta harbours a unique ecosystem of bacteria, which may have a surprising origin – the mother’s mouth.
According to the researchers, different nutrients in the mother’s diet are a huge determinant of which microbes take up residence in the placenta. Further more, disturbances of the placenta’s bacterial community may explain why some women give birth prematurely, and could also be one of the ways that a woman’s diet affects her offspring’s gut bacteria and, as a result, the child’s disease risk.
Aagaard K et al (2014) The Placenta Harbors a Unique Microbiome. Sci Transl Med. 6:237ra65. DOI:10.1126/scitranslmed.3008599
Research fact two: Exposure to more than three courses of antibiotics in the first year of life is associated with a significantly increased rate of food allergy.
In a retrospective case – control study researchers found an almost two-fold increase in food allergy in children exposed to three or more courses of antibiotics between the ages of seven and 12 months.
According to the researchers, the increase in food allergy may be related to a disruption of normal gut flora. Systemic antibiotics not only kill bacteria causing an infection, they are also distributed to other parts of our body where they can kill susceptible bacteria that are part of our normal flora — especially in the gastrointestinal tract.
Johnson, K (2013) Antibiotic Exposure in Infancy Linked to Food Allergies. In American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) 2013 Annual Meeting: Abstract L14. Presented February 26, 2013. Accessed online May 2015. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/780023#vp_1
Research fact three: Cesarean delivery and bottle-feeding influence the gut microbiota in infants.
The study found formula-fed babies had more abundant bacteria in stool samples at age four months, with over-representation of Clostridium difficile (C.diff), compared with exclusively breastfed infants.
C. diff is a part of the normal group of microorganisms found in the gut. But it is also a major human pathogen. It can sometimes take advantage of disruptions in our bacterial flora to cause disease.
Infants born by C-section had significantly fewer bacteria of the Escherichia-Shigella and Bacteroides species, while elective cesarean was associated with “particularly low bacterial richness and diversity.”
Whether those factors are critical for a healthy microbiota or if it’s more important to acquire a particular combination of specific types of bacteria remains unknown, the researchers pointed out.
The researchers also commented that passage through the birth canal gives infants a natural inoculation with bacteria from the mother, whose milk also shapes the baby’s intestinal colonisation.
Furthermore, these changes in the developing microbiome could explain susceptibilities to a variety of conditions later in life, such as obesity, diabetes and GI conditions.
Freelance journalist and editor
Kat Boehringer specialises in health communications including health writing, health promotions, and social media management. In her spare time she works as a massage therapist and aspiring novelist. Connect with her at LinkedIn.