The health of the gut microflora during the early years of life has widespread and long-lasting consequences for babies’ and children’s wellbeing, but is easily compromised. Naturopath Paul Keogh explains how to know whether your little one might benefit from a probiotic supplement.
You’re probably aware that your intestinal tract is home to a large population of friendly bacteria, collectively referred to as your microflora.
But did you know that the wellbeing of these beneficial bugs is even more important for kids than it is for adults?
From the moment you’re born and throughout childhood, your microflora are intimately involved in the development of your digestive and immune systems. As a result, any form of imbalance that affects the ecology of the microfl ora during the formative early years of life can affect both short- and long-term health.
In this article, we’ll discuss common signs that suggest a baby’s or child’s microflora may be compromised, and what you can do to restore their gut health.
1. They were born via C-section
In newborns, the initial colonisation and subsequent development of the microflora is largely transferred from the mother, predominantly as the baby moves through the birth canal.
Caesarean births are a godsend when required for the health of mother or child, but unfortunately prevent that initial transfer of the benefi cial bacteria from occurring.
As a result, the guts of babies born via C-section contain lower proportions of the three benefi cial Bifi dobacterium species that normally form the foundations of the microflora (Bifi dobacterium breve, B. infantis and B. longum), and relatively greater quantities of species with the potential to cause disease.
In some studies, these microflora differences can still be detected at up to seven years of age.
To help promote the initial inoculation of the gut with beneficial bacteria, a specially formulated probiotic supplement containing B. breve, B. infantis and B. longum can be given to the infant and consumed by the breastfeeding mother.
2. Mum wasn’t in the best of health during pregnancy
Since much of a newborn’s microflora is maternal in its origin, any factors affecting mum’s microbial ecology may also be transferred to her child.
These issues appear to be particularly relevant for the children of women who experienced eczema, weight issues or blood sugar problems prior to or during pregnancy.
In such circumstances, the use of a probiotic supplement during pregnancy may help to support mum’s microflora, and consequently promote the establishment of healthy microfl ora in the infant, who may also benefit from direct supplementation after birth.
3. Early introduction of formula or solids
One of the reasons that breast milk is the preferred source of nutrition for babies is that it continues to introduce friendly flora into the baby’s intestinal tract after childbirth.
It’s also a rich source of oligosaccharides, a type of sugar known as a prebiotic because it acts as a source of fuel for the Bifi dobacterium species in the gut, enabling them to mature and develop.
The synergistic combination of probiotics and prebiotics in mothers’ milk helps furnish breast-fed babies with optimal gut health, which further enhances their ability to properly metabolise the milk that forms their primary source of nutrition.
As the baby grows and develops, so does the microflora, which evolves over time to facilitate the digestion and assimilation of food sources other than breast milk.
The early introduction of formula or solids to supplement or replace breast milk is sometimes essential to help a child thrive and/or support mum’s wellbeing. However, the early introduction of foods other than breast milk may also reduce the predominance of the beneficial Bifi dobacterium species in the baby’s gut.
Luckily, research suggests that with supplementation of both probiotics and prebiotics, the gut microfl ora comes to resemble that of breastfed infants.
4. Exposure to antibiotics
The use of antibiotics is sometimes unavoidable, but in addition to helping to fight infection, they may also diminish the resilience and diversity of children’s microflora.
For mums who need to take antibiotics during the late stages of pregnancy or while breastfeeding, taking an antibioticresistant probiotic supplement may help restore the microflora and facilitate its healthy transfer to the baby.
Similarly, babies and children who require antibiotics may benefit from the use of an antibiotic-resistant probiotic supplement specially formulated for paediatric use during and after antibiotic treatment.
5. There’s a family history of allergies
Children who have a parent or sibling affected by allergies such as eczema, hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and asthma are 2-3 times more likely to develop allergies themselves than children without a family history of allergy.
Taking probiotic supplements may help reduce susceptible children’s likelihood of allergies by aiding the maturation of the immune system and reducing the risk of allergic reaction.
The World Allergy Organization recommends the use of probiotic supplements during pregnancy, breastfeeding and infancy when there’s a history of allergy in the immediate family.
6. They keep catching colds
More than 70 per cent of the body’s immune cells are found in the gut, where they strengthen resistance against disease and help fight off disease-causing organisms.
Among other consequences for the immune system, if the bowel microflora is compromised, a child may have increased susceptibility to infections such as colds and flu.
Taking a children’s probiotic formula may help reduce kids’ and babies’ risk of experiencing upper respiratory tract infections such as colds, and decrease the risk of recurrence after an initial infection.
7. They’re constipated or experiencing tummy troubles
The bowel microfl ora help to maintain healthy functioning of the digestive system, so probiotic supplements may be benefi cial for babies and children experiencing digestive difficulties such as colic, bloating, flatulence and gas.
They also help to improve bowel movements, and promote the normal transit of the faeces through the gastrointestinal tract, so may help relieve constipation in affected newborns, babies and children.
Paul Keogh is the executive and technical director for Global Therapeutics P/L trading as Fusion Health. Paul is a qualified naturopath and medical herbalist with 25 years combined experience in clinical practice and the development of integrated Chinese and western herbal medicines.