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How to reduce your baby’s risk of chronic disease by giving their microbiome the best start

The foundations of your microbiome are established in the first few years of life.

By  Dr Lisa Stinson

During Kristy Wood’s first two pregnancies, she didn’t give much thought to the microbiome of her babies.

But her second child’s tricky start to life triggered a shift.

“When it came to my third pregnancy, I definitely made choices that were influenced by what I knew about their microbiomes,” says Kristy.

“My second child has suffered with food intolerance, allergies, and eczema.

“I wanted to give my third child the best chance of avoiding this.”

As a doting aunty to Kristy’s children and infant microbiome researcher, I understand her concerns.

Of course, the causes of allergies are complex but evidence suggests our microbiome — the community oftrillions of microorganisms that lives inside each of us — can play a role.

Alterations to this community have been linked to several chronic diseases, including obesity, asthma, allergies, and even neuropsychiatric disorders, such as autism, Parkinson’s disease and depression.

During this time, a healthy development of the microbiome can program life-long health.

So how do we ensure that the microscopic worlds inside our children get the best start to life?

1. Feed them breast milk (when you can)

Breast milk exposes infants to mum’s bacteria, some of which go on to seed the infant’s microbiome. 

These bacteria, in combination with antibacterial proteins and immune cells, help to safely train the baby’s immune system. 

Milk also contains more than 200 oligosaccharides: complex sugars that cannot be digested by humans, but act as food for the baby’s gut bacteria. 

While in adults we normally think of a diverse microbiome as being healthy, in infants the opposite is true. 

A healthy breastfed infant gut microbiome is relatively simple in structure, and is dominated by a single genus: Bifidobacteria. 

Bifidobacteria have been shown to be passed from mother to infant via milk, and they thrive on oligosaccharides in mum’s milk. 

The health benefits of breastfeeding are myriad. However, breastfeeding can be a struggle, and not all mothers are able to produce enough milk to meet all their infant’s needs. 

The good news is that any amount of breast milk is good. 

If exclusive breastfeeding is an unobtainable goal, mixed feeding with breast milk and formula can benefit your baby’s microbiome, fostering the growth of healthy Bifidobacteria. 

Studies have shown that infants who are mixed-fed have an intermediate microbiome between that of exclusively breastfed and exclusively formula-fed infants. 

2. Think about getting a dog

When it comes to your baby’s microbiome, it’s just like any other pet issue: cats are good, but dogs are better.

Research has long supported the health benefits of growing up in a home with furry pets. 

If you were raised in a home with a cat, your risk of developing asthma and allergies is reduced by 10 to 30 per cent, while those raised in a home with a dog see a 20 to 50 per cent reduction in their risk.

One of the reasons for this protective effect is the contribution of your pet to the dust microbiome in your house.

All of us, including our pets, shed bacteria into our environment.

Having a furry pet in the house increases the diversity of bacteria in the household microbiome.

When researchers expose mice to dust from homes with dogs, the mice are protected from developing the mouse equivalent of asthma.

This dog-home dust also changed the microbiome of exposed mice, increasing the abundance of Lactobacillus johnsonii, a bacteria that aids in mucosal membrane immunity, protecting the airways from allergens. 

There is no guarantee your furry friend will prevent your baby getting asthma and allergies and a new pet may not be possible if someone in the family has severe asthma. But weighing up the benefits and risks of having a pet could pay off for everyone, including Fido.

3. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics

In healthy adults, a course of antibiotics will knock your microbiome out of whack temporarily, but you will normally recover within 12 months.

However, in early life, our microbiome is much more dynamic and unstable, and disruptions such as antibiotics can permanently alter the trajectory it takes.

This disturbance to the early-life microbiome may explain why children who received antibiotics in the first years of their life are at a higher risk of developing asthma and obesity later in life.

Of course, antibiotics can be lifesaving medical interventions, and should be used when necessary. If you’re unsure whether antibiotics are necessary for your child, it is best to talk to your doctor. 

4. Sort yourself out early

Mothers give a lot to their infants: their milk, their womb, their ability to sleep for more than three consecutive hours.

But did you know that mothers are the number one donor of bacteria to their infants in early life?

So it’s important to sort your own microbiome out before the baby arrives.

One of the best ways to promote a healthy community of bacteria in your gut is to eat a healthy diet rich in a variety of fibre.

Fibre consists of long chains of carbohydrates that are linked by complex bonds that our own cells do a bad job of breaking down.

This means that fibre ends up in our large intestines mostly undigested, where it can feed our resident gut bacteria.

You should also avoid unnecessary antibiotics while you’re pregnant and breastfeeding, as these will temporarily alter your microbiome.

Although mothers are the greatest contributors to their baby’s microbiome, everyone who shares the house with baby will contribute. Pregnancy is a great time to introduce the whole family to a healthy, fibre-rich diet. 

5. Don’t be afraid to get a little dirty

Just as we want our children to encounter a range of experiences in early life, we also want their immune system to encounter a range of bacteria.

The hygiene hypothesis, first proposed three decades ago, states that early-life microbial exposure protects against asthma and allergies.

Exposure to a diverse range of microbes in the first years of life helps to “train” the infant immune system, promoting immune tolerance.

While good toilet-related hand hygiene is still important, you should not lose sleep over your baby sticking a toy into their mouth.

In fact, babies are pretty good at exposing themselves to the microbial world. As any parent will tell you, they have a knack for sampling the world through their mouth.

A final word of caution

It is important to remember that while each of these factors have been associated with a healthy infant microbiome and reduced risk of chronic diseases, they are not the ultimate recipe for a happy, heathy child.

If your baby needs antibiotics, or if breastfeeding doesn’t work out for you, it doesn’t necessarily spell ill health for your child.

Bear in mind that the studies in this field are largely associative, and that an increased risk is not the same as a guarantee of a poor health outcome.

The good news is that more research is focusing on the development of the microbiome and the implications of this for life-long health.

Scientists are now beginning to uncover potential interventions that may help to promote a healthy microbiome in infants, with the hope of reducing the burden of chronic diseases for the next generation. 

As for Kristy, her youngest child Connor is about to turn three, and still has no signs of allergies or eczema.

While we cannot know whether Connor’s microbiome protected him from developing health problems, Kristy is relieved and will continue to parent in a  “microbiome-friendly” manner. 

Original source here.

Posted on: June 29 2021

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