Did you know your gut is the starting point of your immune system?
Our gastrointestinal tract is a constantly changing collection of nutrients, bacteria and sometimes pathogens.
This system promotes health when the good bacteria reign, giving the harmful bacteria less of a chance to do damage.
But any disruption in the balance can lead to illness.
The first microbes to colonise your baby’s gut will set the trajectory for immune function for the entire lifetime.
How To Give Your Baby’s Immune System A Head Start
Here are 5 strategies you can use to help your baby maximise the power of gut health and proper immune system function:
Tip #1: Start During Pregnancy (Or Before If Possible)
We now know the lifestyle and diets of both women and men impact the health of their unborn babies.
In fact, recent research has shown what you eat during pregnancy can impact three generations. Yeah I know, no pressure, right?!
It was always thought that at birth, babies had a sterile gastrointestinal tract colonised with microflora, starting at birth from exposure to mum’s skin and genitourinary tract.
But from looking at samples of umbilical cord blood and babies’ first bowel movements, researchers found that babies already exhibited some gut bacteria. The researchers believe babies acquire this from the mother’s digestive system during pregnancy.
Since the bacteria strains identified can be affected by diet and lifestyle, eating well and staying healthy during pregnancy can be the first step you take in helping your baby’s immune system develop.
Aim to eat a variety of fresh, nutritious foods and limit the amount of processed foods you consume, which can wreak havoc on your immune system. Avoid or cut out sugar and processed grains (breads, cereals, pasta, cake etc). Increase your intake of good fats if you don’t consume much. Avocado, coconut oil, chia seeds, fish, eggs, nuts (especially almonds and walnuts) and seeds are all fantastic for your body and immune system.
Make sure you eat enough protein, especially for breakfast (which will keep you full), vegetables, leafy greens, good fats, nuts and seeds. Keep fruit minimal – one small to average sized serve per day.
Eating this way will also help you to avoid gestational diabetes. Recent research has also shown that by adopting a healthy lifestyle before you conceive, you can reduce your chances of gestational diabetes by up to 83%. There is still a significant benefit if you start in pregnancy too. Read more here.
Eat organic, if you can, to further limit your baby’s exposure to potentially harmful substances.
If you are a smoker, quit during pregnancy. If any other lifestyle factors are hindering your good health (such as being overweight), work to change them even before conception.
There are many benefits to a healthy lifestyle before you conceive and during pregnancy.
Tip #2: Maximise Your Chances of Having a Vaginal Birth
The way you give birth can make a difference to baby’s developing immune system. Babies born by cesarean section are colonised with different types of bacteria than those born vaginally.
For example, one study found higher levels of C. difficile — which is an infection that can cause diarrhoea and intestinal problems in babies born by c-section. In the same study, babies born vaginally had low C. difficile rates, but higher bifidobacteria levels.
Bifidobacteria is essential for proper gut function, a “friendly bacteria” that promotes health. You can reduce your risk of a c-section by staying active and eating well in pregnancy, avoiding early induction, using natural methods for pain relief (as opposed to an epidural) during labour, and having an active labour.
For many years, studies have consistently found that a doula (professional birth support person) can significantly reduce your chances of a c-section, without doing any harm. Recent research published in the American Journal of Managed Care found c-sections could be reduced by 60-80% where a doula was present at birth.
Not only are those figures gob-smacking, but it just goes to show how many unnecessary c-sections are being performed when a non-medical, but trained birth support person can make such a massive impact on surgery rates. You can read more here.
Tip #3: Plan Some Skin-to-Skin Time After Birth
Research shows that babies who are placed skin-to-skin with the mother immediately after birth have more of their mother’s bacteria than babies who are separated after birth.
These separated babies are more likely to be colonised with the bacteria of others in the room — which may not be as protective.
By having the same bacteria as his or her mother, baby will be well-protected from infection in their home environment.
If there is one article you absolutely must read, it’s our article on 7 Huge Benefits of an Undisturbed First Hour After Birth.
Tip #4: Breastfeed If You Can
One of the benefits of breastfeeding is that breastmilk is easy to digest and is gentle on baby’s tummy. By breastfeeding, you are building your baby’s defense mechanisms for a lifetime of good health.
Imagine your baby’s gut as a row of building blocks – right after birth, the blocks have spaces between them, allowing anything to pass between them. In baby’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract, these spaces allow proteins and disease-causing molecules to pass through into baby’s bloodstream, increasing the likelihood of illness and allergy.
Colostrum – your first milk – coats the inside of the intestines, and provides a protective layer so that pathogens cannot easily permeate these open junctures. Over time, the blocks move closer together, eventually touching one another so that nothing can pass between them, called ‘gut closure’.
Research shows that this happens sooner for breastfed babies than babies who are formula fed. It may take as long as 4 to 6 months for baby’s gut to fully close – and the immune factors in human milk will provide passive immunity for baby until this happens.
Another strategy related to open gut? Hold solids until your baby is ready — about the mid-point of the first year.
Breastfeeding also provides babies with protection from disease by passing along antibodies that mum’s body creates. Before birth, this happens through the placenta, but after birth, babies need to get breastmilk to reap these benefits.
As baby’s immune system is developing (as the gut is maturing), breastmilk will protect him.
If baby is exposed to a pathogen, baby breastfeeds, the mother’s body recognises the foreign substance through baby’s saliva and starts to produce antibodies to it. These antibodies are delivered to baby through breastmilk straight to baby’s digestive system.
It sounds like science fiction! But it’s the amazing way a mother and baby work in synchrony. This kind of protection just doesn’t happen with artificial feeding.
Studies also show that breastfed babies’ guts contain more probiotics — beneficial micro-organisms that promote health.
Formula fed babies, on the other hand, are more likely to have higher levels of pathogenic — or disease causing — bacteria. Formula also changes the pH level of the GI tract, which can lead to an overgrowth of these substances, while breastmilk creates a gut environment that limits the growth of harmful bacteria.
As little as a single bottle of formula can disrupt the gut pH enough to cause harm, and it can take a few weeks to restore the balance with breastfeeding.
Check out our Essential Breastfeeding Guide For Pregnant Women, so you can get breastfeeding off to the very best start.
Tip #5: Avoid Antibiotics, If Possible
Antibiotics, like formula, change the balance in the gut.
While they’re great for healing an infection, they can wreak damage when overused.
A common reason for early antibiotic use is when a pregnant women tests positive to Group B Strep. If you test positive for Group B Strep, or if you want to be prepared, make sure you read our article, here.
One study, for example, found links between antibiotic use in the first year and asthma during adolescence and bowel problems during childhood.
If your baby does need antibiotic treatment for an illness, you might want to consider using probiotics to build beneficial gut bacteria. Speak to your naturopath to source a great quality probiotic designed especially for babies.
With all you will do to keep your new baby healthy, these simple steps may be the foundation for building a strong immune system for life.
- Azad MB, Konya T, Maughan H, Guttman DS, Field CJ, Chari RS, Sears MR, Becker AB, Scott JA, & Kozyrskyj AL. (2013). Gut microbiota of healthy Canadian infants: profiles by mode of delivery and infant diet at 4 months. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 185(5), 385-394.
- Catassi C, Bonucci A, Coppa, GV, Carlucci A, & Giorgi PL. (1995). Intestinal permeability. Changes during the first month: effect of natural versus artificial feeding. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition, 21(4), 383-386.
- Hanson LÅ. (2004). Immunobiology of human milk: how breastfeeding protects babies. Amrillo, TX: Pharmasoft.
- Jiménez E, Marín ML, Martín R, Odriozola JM, Olivares M, Xaus J, Fernández L, Rodríguez JM. 2008. Is meconium from healthy newborns actually sterile? Res Microbiol, 159(3), 187-93.
- Ludington, SM. (2014). Kangaroo care annotated bibliography and references to videos, books, webinars, wraps, researchers, etc. [accessed online https://www.skintoskincontact.com/susan-ludington.aspx].
- Penders J, Thijs C, Vink C, Stelma FF, Snijders B, Kummeling I, van den Brandt PA, Stobberingh EE. 2006. Factors Influencing the Composition of the Intestinal Microbiota in Early Infancy. Pediatrics 118(2), 511-21.
- Walker WA. (2013). Initial intestinal colonization in the human infant and immune homeostasis. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 63 (Suppl. 2), 8-15.