How does baby’s diet support gut health? By Dr Childs
We’re excited to share with you some amazing facts and tips from Dr. Childs around how you can support your baby’s gut health and immunity.
At a glance
Gut health is very closely connected to baby’s immune system.
Breast milk contains Human Milk Oligosaccharides and friendly bacteria to support baby’s gut and immune system
Providing a variety of different complementary foods from 6months on is associated with positive gut health.
Pet ownership benefits the pattern of gut bacteria your baby has!
What is gut health and why is it important?
The health of our gut can influence our whole body, and is very closely connected to our immune system. Good gut health also means having regular and painless bowel movements, and enjoying a life free of discomfort from symptoms like bloating or cramping. Our gut has a number of important jobs – digesting and absorbing the food that we eat and being the home to many trillions of ‘friendly’ bacteria, known as our gut microbiome.
How does feeding baby help the development of the gut?
Birth – 6 months
Breast milk provides the important nutrients a baby needs to grow and develop. Breast milk contains sugars and fats for energy, proteins for growth, and vitamins and minerals to ensure all the functions of baby’s body are able to work well. Breast milk does not contain very much vitamin D, and so women who are breastfeeding are advised to give their baby vitamin drops.
As well as nutrients, breast milk also contains a wide range of molecules linked to immune cells, including antibodies from the mother which can provide protection against some infections.
Your baby’s gut microbiome develops in the early days of life and is linked to later health outcomes such as allergies or being overweight in childhood. Human breastmilk contains its’ own unique friendly bacteria which is important in supporting your baby’s gut bacteria (the microbiome). Your baby’s gut microbiome has an important role in educating and supporting your baby’s immune system.
Breast milk contains a lot of HMOs (human milk oligosaccharides), particularly in the early days of life when the milk is called colostrum. The type of HMOs in a mother’s milk will depend on their genetic background rather than the mother’s diet, including the genes which determine your blood type. HMOs are complex carbohydrates which support your baby’s friendly gut bacteria. They promote the growth of a bacteria called Bifidobacteria which supports your baby’s gut, and has been shown in the lab to help gut cells.
Find out more about HMOs found in breast milk
There are anti-microbial proteins within breast milk which will break down harmful bacteria and prevent their growth. This is why expressed breast milk can be kept in the fridge for several days, but formula milk needs to be freshly prepared for each feed.
From around six months of age, you will start to introduce your baby to complementary food alongside their milk. Some parents will chose to spoonfeed their babies with purees, others may opt for baby-led weaning where infants are provided with finger foods to feed themselves, and some may do a bit of both. There are some foods which should be avoided in early life – for example, honey should not be given to infants under 1 year of age.
Providing a variety of different foods is linked to having a rich variety of gut bacteria and is associated with positive gut health. Whether you use baby-led weaning or spoonfeeding, having fruit and vegetables in your baby’s diet will increase the variety of gut bacteria they have. So enjoy experimenting with a variety of healthy foods, and discovering your baby’s likes and dislikes!
While wholegrain foods can be a great source of fibre for adults, care should be taken for young infants. Wholegrains can be quite filling and so may prevent your infant from eating enough of the energy rich foods they need to play and grow.
Infants under two years of age are at risk of iron deficiency, and so ensuring your baby has foods containing iron is important. While foods like red meat are certainly rich in iron, most of the iron in children’s diets actually comes from cereals, vegetables or potatoes.
Until quite recently, mothers used to be advised to avoid certain foods like peanuts during their pregnancy to try and prevent their children developing allergies. We now understood that the opposite may in fact be true, with infants who were given peanut snacks in their early life being less likely to develop peanut allergy.
What else can parents do to support baby’s gut health?
As well as the type of food your baby eats, is very important to ensure good food hygiene and hand washing to prevent avoidable illnesses or infections. Pet ownership also benefits the pattern of gut bacteria your baby has!
The foods you give your baby in their infancy are a very personal choice, and will be influenced by lots of factors, such as your cultural background, the habits and preferences you have, the time you have available for food preparation, and your budget when food shopping. There is no single ‘best’ diet– the most important thing is to ensure your baby has enough energy to play, the building blocks they need to grow, and that they develop a positive and healthy relationship with food.
Want to know more?
Read Dr Child’s second article Supporting baby’s gut health and immunity
Dr Caroline Childs is Lecturer in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Southampton. Dr Childs’ is a leading global expert in gut microbiome and the immune system.