Exposure to a diverse range of microbes is what your child most needs for a good start in life. These microscopic overlooked heroes can positively affect every aspect of one’s life – mental and physical.
For a long-time, modern medicine promulgated the false narrative that an ultra sterile environment keeps a child healthy. However, recent studies have proven otherwise. There is a strong correlation between our microbial environment, our immune system, mental health, and our gene expression.
Starting from birth, during infancy, and early childhood, microbial flora populates in our bodies shaping our health – determining whether or not we develop an illness. It evolves based on the environment we grow up in. Factors like natural birth, breastfeeding, family size, early nutrition, pets, and the quality of our water supply have a profound effect on our burgeoning microbiome.
Initially, as babies, our microbiome closely resembles our mother’s. However, within a few months, the more heterogeneous our environment is, the more diverse our microbiota becomes. Thus within a few months, the number of species starts to rise, increasing from about a hundred in infancy to thousands by adulthood.
Microbial diversity can be grouped into five major types: viruses, bacteria, archaea, fungi, and protists. They comprise as much as 90 percent of the cells in and on our bodies. More than 1,000 species of them live inside us and on our skin. Women have typically a slightly more diverse overall microbiome than men.
Our microbiome stabilizes within the first two or three years of life. Nonetheless, a change in environment or diet can significantly alter our microbiome.
Dysbiosis – Root Cause Of Disease
When your body doesn’t have enough good bacteria, bad bacteria can thrive. This disruption in microbiota homeostasis is called dysbiosis. A body that is in a state of dysbiosis one is more likely to have stomach and other health conditions. These conditions include obesity, asthma, skin infections, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular problems, autoimmune diseases, allergies, and even anxiety/depression.
The longer your gut is in dysbiosis, the more trouble you might have with chronic illness.
Thus early exposure to varied microbes serves as inoculation and helps primes our immune system to become robust and fight against infections and diseases.
How does one promote the development of good microbes in children?
1) Having a Vaginal Birth
While traveling through the birth canal babies get their first big dose of microbes. When a baby encounters microorganisms from his mother’s vagina colonization of the baby’s gut begins. Furthermore, during birth, the baby will come into contact with bacteria from the mother’s gut.
Vaginally delivered babies have many more healthy microbes from their mothers than babies who were born by cesarean. Newborns delivered by c-section, tend to lack strains of gut bacteria found in healthy children and adults. Instead, their guts harbor harmful microbes that are common in hospitals.
2) Remedial Measures For Caesarian Birth – Vaginal Seeding and FMT
Vaginal seeding involves swabbing the mother’s vagina and transferring the swab to the C-section delivered baby’s mouth, eyes, and skin right after birth, in an attempt to stimulate a microbiome rich in mother’s vaginal microbes.
Another alternative to inducing the microbiome into a C-section delivered baby is through Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT). Maternal poop was mixed with breastmilk and administered to C-section-born infants. The research showed that their gut bacteria were transformed into a microbiome quite similar to those born vaginally.
However, there have not been enough studies with regard to the efficacy of both the above practices. And the medical community is still divided about these oddball methods. Do your own research and make the best choice for your child.
3) Delaying Your Baby’s First Bath
Babies are born covered in vernix caseosa which, may have evolved in part to help develop gut flora. This vernix facilitates acid mantle development and supports normal bacterial colonization.
Thus delaying your newborn’s first bath does come with some potential benefits. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends waiting at least six hours before bathing your baby.
There are some exceptions, though, babies born with chorioamnionitis or meconium staining need to be bathed right after delivery to reduce the risk of bacterial infection. Babies born to moms who have transmissible viral diseases (like HIV or hepatitis) should also be bathed ASAP.
No formula in the market comes anywhere close to breastmilk which adequately provides all the essential nutrients and microorganisms that a baby needs.
One very important component of breast milk after fat, protein, and lactose is human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). There are 130 types of oligosaccharides in breastmilk. HMOs, contribute to the development of the infant’s microflora and immune system.
Babies need very specific types of microbes at specific stages of growth. Automatically, without much ado, breast milk composition changes to match the age and various nutritional requirements of your child.
Bottle milk which is mostly cow milk, or infant formula may have the nutrients but is devoid of healthy bacteria.
5) Pre-chewing Baby’s First Solid Food
Premastication, pre-chewing, or kiss-feeding an infant is another way to increase microbial diversity. Furthermore, infants don’t come equipped with much salivary amylase, pre-chewing food for a child transfers the full array of salivary enzymes which helps the infant digests the food better.
Though this practice may seem yuk in our modern world once upon a time it was the norm. I remember my grandmother matter of factly saying that the first food she gave all her 8 kids was pre-chewed by her.
According to research led by anthropologist, Gretel Pelto pre-chewing carries on the immune-system-building process that begins with breastfeeding. Exposing infants to traces of disease pathogens present in a mother’s saliva, gears up their production of antibodies, teaching their immune systems how to deal with those same pathogens later.
A common argument against pre-mastication is that infants can catch infections/ diseases from the saliva itself.
Here again, do your research and make the best choice for your baby.
6) Home-Cooked Meals – Clean Eating Habits
Once upon a time, a baby’s first solid food was the normal everyday food that the family ate. Nowadays, most parents prefer the convenience packaged pre-cooked pureed stuff which may not be the best as they could have additives and preservatives.
Besides, eating puree does not prepare a child for texture and taste as well because he’s eating mixed mush.
I will always be grateful to a kindly neighbor who advised me to give my baby son slightly over-cooked lentil(dal) and rice when I mentioned that my son hated eating. Unbeknownst to me, I was feeding my son sweetened foods which my son hated. Being breastfed up to his weaning stage he did not have any artificial sugar which made it a foreign taste. Till today, my son only rarely eats sweets.
What you feed your child during his early years influences not just his taste buds but also his gut microbiome.
As they grow older instead of milk give them yogurt. Try to introduce fermented foods in their daily meals. Just veggies dunked in a salt-water brine, and within 2-3 days they are bubbling with healthy microbes.
Mother’s Hand Taste
Furthermore, home-cooked meals are laden with a special type of hand microbiome called Son-mat in Korean – Mother’s Hand Taste. No matter how old we get we will always crave for mother’s cooking. Eating food cooked by mom fills our souls with a deep sense of happy calm.
Maybe it’s the Son-mat which is laden with good bacteria that automatically boosts our gut-microbiota which in turn influences our mental state taking us back to our happy carefree childhood days.
7) Limit Antibiotics and other harmful medications
Antibiotics can be helpful in swiftly halting life-threatening infections, However, one must be careful about using them indiscriminately. Besides killing bad bacteria it also kills off the good bacteria in the gut. Antibiotics given to babies may change their gut microbes for years.
According to studies, excessive use of antibiotics during early childhood is the root cause of many chronic ailments from asthma, allergies, autism, type 1 diabetes, obesity, and even certain cancers.
During a fever, don’t immediately resort to antibiotics, try to wipe down the fever and use a cold compress on the forehead. Keeping the fever down naturally helps the body’s natural antibodies fight the affection without having to resort to harmful medications.
Check out with your doctor, for alternatives to strong antibiotics. Maybe, some herbal medications could help.
Here again, use common sense and always seek medical advice if your child’s condition worsens.
8) Reduce Stress – Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis
Try to keep your home stress-free. Make it a place where your child is free to play, explore, express, and be himself. Give him the space to do what he loves and enjoys.
Stress impacts not only the neuroendocrine and neuroimmune systems but also the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Often a child who is having difficulty in school will complain of a stomachache – stress really gets into the belly first.
There is bi-directional communication between the gut and the brain – stress impacts gut bacteria, and the composition of gut bacteria impacts the stress response.
9) A Little Less Hygiene, More Dirt
There is no need to overly fixate on hygiene and cleanliness. Handwashing before meals is not a bad idea, but don’t make them use strong antibacterial soaps. Just simple water should suffice.
Don’t use strong chemicals to clean your home, instead use white vinegar which is cheap and effective for normal conditions. Use commercial cleaners only when really necessary.
Allow your child to walk barefoot both indoors and outdoors, encourage them to do gardening and farming, go camping and hiking in nature, play with animals, or better still keep a pet, and interact with people. Let them get down and dirty.
How the Gut microbes you’re born with affect your Lifelong Health
Natural Living and Microbes
To develop into healthy humans our kids need contact with as much microbial biodiversity from the environment. Having good healthy microbes is important for the development of a robust immune system.
Ease up on cleanliness and hygiene, allow dirt. ditch the antimicrobial cleansers/soaps. However do encourage clean eating, and reduce consumption of processed high-fat foods.
Don’t stress about trivial things – give them space to enjoy the spontaneity of childhood.
Let your child’s growing years be filled with lots of love, laughter, and enough microbes.