Your gut is home to billions of bacteria known as microflora, most of which reside in the gastrointestinal tract. Here, they provide numerous health benefits, particularly in terms of protecting the gut and immune system.
The early years of a child’s life are the most important for their immune system development. This is when they are exposed to pathogens for the first time, and when their body first begins generating antibodies to fight them.
A child’s gut microflora is their lifelong defense system against invading pathogens. However, the composition of their microflora is highly vulnerable to internal and external influences: diet, age, gender, stress, environment, and even the things they touch and smell.
Research has shown that the immune system and the gut microbiome are intricately connected. That’s why it’s so important to build on that gut microbiome so that it can flourish as the child grows.
The gut microflora are established in a baby’s gut almost immediately after birth with bacteria picked up during the passage through the birth canal. Breastfeeding is very helpful during a child’s early years because breastmilk provides additional bacteria to nourish that microflora.
One of the most important bioactive components of breast milk is lactoferrin, which has been proven effective in preventing diarrhea. Breast milk also contains rich concentrations of oligosaccharides, which play important roles in the natural defenses by preventing disease-causing bacteria and viruses from infecting the gut. Additional research has also shown oligosaccharides in breast milk reduces the risk of respiratory illness. (1)
One study found that babies who get at least 75 percent of their nutrition from breast milk during the first month of life receive about 28 percent of their gut bacteria from their mother’s milk. Breastfed babies also get around 10 percent of their gut bacteria from mothers’ skin. (2)
What’s also important is that researchers have found the unique composition of a mother’s milk is a major contributor to her own infant’s gut microbiome.
Of course, not every mother can breastfeed. But there are other ways to boost your kids’ gut health.
Probiotics are an excellent way to introduce a healthy range of bacteria to your child’s digestive system.
Look for a probiotic supplement that contains a variety of strains that are ordinarily resident in the human gut. The best strains for kids’ gut health include Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus plantarum.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus may be especially appropriate as a treatment for childhood diarrhe, as it enhances immunoglobin A responses against rotavirus (3). Lactobacillus strains have been given to healthy infants with no significant adverse outcomes.
When choosing a probiotic for your kids, look for one that is easy for them to eat but is also free from added sugars, flavors, or artificial sweeteners. The supplement should also be in a form that protects the bacteria from stomach acid, such as BIO-tract time-release technology.
Our kids probiotic comes in easy-to-swallow tablets, releases its bacteria slowly over 8-10 hours, and is lightly sweetened with stevia. You can read more about it here.
Kids can be fussy eaters – but a little encouragement could change their minds about healthy foods. Unsweetened yogurt is a fantastic source of probiotic goodness. Greek yogurt contains a variety of strains including L. bulgaricus, L. acidophilus, and L. casei.
Some fermented foods that may appeal to kids’ palates include kefir, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Cultured cottage cheese is rich in active cultures such as L. acidophilus and B. bifidum, which are also found in probiotic yogurt.
These foods can be easily added alongside regular meals, or mixed with fruits or into smoothies. While many of these products contain added probiotic strains (as well as natural), they are still beneficial – as long as there are no added sugars or artificial ingredients.
True sour pickles (made through the slow process of fermentation rather than through vinegar) are also popular with kids. They are crunchier and more flavorsome than standard pickles and offer healthy probiotic benefits.
Water kefir is a fermented drink with mild sweet-sour flavor and a slight fizziness, which makes it a good replacement for soda. The water kefir grains include beneficial bacteria that break down sugar and transform it into a fun probiotic drink.
Playing outdoors has far more benefits than many parents realize. For a start, outdoor games and sports help children to develop their coordination and motor skills. But just as importantly, playing outside exposes kids to a variety of microorganisms that can prompt a healthy immune response.
Unfortunately, the 'Western' lifestyle increasingly automatically undermines natural exposure to microbes.
Being excessively vigilant about hygiene during a child’s developmental years can reduce their natural exposure to all sorts of microbes. This can negatively affect how their immune system is trained to deal with pathogens later in life, making them more vulnerable to illness.
Some studies have even found a correlation between children who live on farms and their protection against chronic inflammatory disorders. This is believed to be due to environmental factors that kids are exposed to on farms – including fresh air, dirt, and poop! (4)
Get kids off their electronic devices and send them outdoors at least once every day for some good old-fashioned playtime. Encourage ball sports, gardening, or just playing with pets.
There are times when antibiotic drugs can save lives – but they more often than not given out too easily. Antibiotics literally kill all bacteria – good AND bad. The loss of beneficial gut bacteria can have serious consequences for a child’s long-term health.
Research has even linked antibiotics with peanut allergies, and one recent study found that antibiotic use in children may contribute to excess weight gain throughout childhood.
Antibiotics can significantly alter the functionality of the gut microbiome. Antibiotics can cause stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, and weaken longer-term immunity, and should be used only if absolutely necessary. Talk to your child’s doctor before accepting a prescription.
More importantly, be sure to combine your course of antibiotics with a good probiotic to maintain and restore the gut microbiome. Choose a kid-friendly probiotic supplement that contains a variety of strains including L. rhamnosus, L. plantarum, B. infantis, L. brevis, and B. longum, plus other Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains.
Along with healthy fermented foods, kids should be getting a good dose of fiber every day. The beneficial bacteria in the gut thrive on dietary fiber, and it plays an important role in keeping little tummies satisfied.
Research has shown that gut microbes need fiber to grow and flourish in the gut, allowing them to maintain the healthy balance of bacteria and protect the inner lining of the intestine. A lack of fiber in the diet can mean the ‘good’ bacteria are unable to do their job properly.
Make sure your child’s daily menu is made up of complex carbohydrates provided in plant foods such as beans, grains, nuts, and fruits. These foods are known as ‘roughage’, and will not only keep their gut health in good shape, but also maintain bowel regularity.
Fiber is also invaluable for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels so that kids have plenty of mental and physical energy throughout the day.