The body contains huge numbers of bacteria naturally. While that sounds scary, it’s actually healthy. These bacteria are part of a complex ecosystem in the digestive tract called the microbiota. The microbiota is important for good health and performs a number of useful functions in the body:
- Helps with digestion and absorption of nutrients
- Provides a natural defense against bad bacteria, toxins and antigens
- Influences the development and function of the immune system
Establishing a healthy microbiota in infancy is an important contributor to life-long health.
Birth of a Baby
Almost immediately after a baby is born, so too is a new ecosystem – their digestive tract microbiota. During the birthing process and during the first few days of life, their digestive tract is inoculated with bacteria. The microbiota develops and establishes itself during the first few years of life.
Science now understands that establishing a healthy microbiota filled with good bacteria is important to your child’s health. In fact, not having enough good bacteria in the microbiota has been linked with many different immune and digestive conditions.
Establishing a Healthy Microbiota
The development of the microbiota is strongly dependent on many factors including the mother’s microbiota, mode of birth, type of feeding, medication including antibiotics and the environment in which we live.
Newborn babies acquire their microbiota primarily from their mother, and an important inoculum is provided during delivery. Babies delivered vaginally have a different mix of bacteria in their microbiota compared with babies delivered via caesarean section. During vaginal birth, babies are inoculated with their mother’s microbiota, while caesarean delivery delays the establishment of beneficial bacteria, which may have significant health consequences.
Siblings, pets and other animals in early childhood are healthy – exposure to their bacteria helps to develop a robust immune system.
How we feed our babies also has an impact on development. Breastfeeding is not only natural, it provides optimal nutrition for your baby. Breast milk contains protein, fat, vitamins and various components including healthy bacteria that help your baby’s microbiota grow and develop. Formula-fed infants have a different mix of bacteria in their microbiota compared to their breastfed counterparts.
The most common and significant cause of alterations to the microbiota is the administration of certain medications. Believe it or not, children are the main antibiotic consumers, with usage rates three times higher than that of adults. This is important because a baby’s microbiota is extremely sensitive to antibiotic use.