Originally published in First Time Parent, July 2017.
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 Age
Your baby is changing and growing by leaps and bounds each day, and his gut is no different.
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, infant formula, or both, and by the solid foods he eats.
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.
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:
1. Be skin-to-skin.
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.
2. Know your HMOs.
Breastfeeding is the gold standard in infant nutrition, and it's the number-one way to support your baby's immune system. But why is that true? And, what if you’re unable to breastfeed or choose to use formula?
One reason mother's milk is so unique and potent may be human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), special prebiotics that are abundant in breast milk. HMOs feed the good bacteria in your baby's gut – where 70% of the immune system lives – and, research has shown that HMOs help to support baby's immune system and digestive system.
More specifically, 2’-fucosyllactose (2’-FL) is by far the most prevalent HMO identified in most mother’s milk; and extensive emerging research on 2'-FL HMO suggests it may provide positive health benefits for the gut microbiome, brain development, infectious disease, immunity and allergies.
For parents who need or choose to use infant formula, there's now a new way to give your child the immune-nourishing benefits of HMOs. Backed by 15 years of HMO research, Abbott’s Similac® with 2′-FL HMO is the first and only infant formula in the U.S. to bring immune benefits of HMO* to formula-fed babies.**
3. 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. In particular, bananas and asparagus are rich in prebiotics, which help probiotics – found in fermented foods like yogurt and kefir – do their jobs.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Move More.
Exercise may also diversify your child’s gut microbes, a study in the journal Gut found. 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.
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.
Rachael Buck, PhD
Rachael Buck works on the forefront of infant nutrition. As a discovery scientist in the field of immune health, Rachael studies the components of breast milk to help Abbott nutritionists develop infant formulas that are as close as possible to breast milk.
Currently, Rachael is leading the pioneering research program for human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). HMOs are beneficial, prebiotic- like nutrients found in breast milk that support intestinal and overall health. Abbott has driven the clinical research behind HMOs for more than 15 years, paving the way for this breakthrough ingredient to be added to infant formulas. The research on HMOs has demonstrated improved immunity benefits similar to breast-fed infants. Preclinical research also shows HMOs reduce intestinal discomfort, reduce food allergy symptoms, and enhance cognition, which may lead to diverse health benefits for infants.
Rachael has authored 51 journal articles and filed 55 patents. She received her PhD degree in immunology from the University of Cambridge, U.K.