Nurse to health
Once baby is born, breastfeeding can play a big role in establishing and populating the gut with good microbes, accounting for up to some 40 percent of intestinal microbes, Eppes says. Mother’s milk can help maintain baby’s microbial health throughout infancy, too.
“Breastfeeding is really key,” says Kloesz. “If you breastfeed, you’re going to have less ear infections and less bacterial and viral infections to begin with.” Breast milk contains beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which can help keep harmful bacteria at bay. It’s replete with human milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs—substances that can, among other things, nourish good bacteria and help them flourish in the gut.
Davis notes that, for mothers who can’t breastfeed, there are infant formulas available containing some of these HMOs and probiotics. But we still can’t replicate every beneficial substance within breast milk, and bacteria, it seems, prefer the real thing.
For as much influence as our microbiomes have on our health, there’s still a lot we do not know. Eppes points out that most of our understanding of the microbiome stems from research conducted within only the past 10 or 15 years, making it still a very new field of medicine. But a lot of dollars are going into microbiome research, and according to Kloesz, over the next decade “we’re going to have a much better idea of what’s the right combination and what’s the right population of bacteria that makes sense for the best intestinal health and development.”
Still, we understand enough to know that bacteria play a major role in your baby’s health. Even in its infancy, research on the microbiome has already revealed the extent that bacteria shape baby’s health—from before birth to well beyond. Just remember that even if your baby ingests and rolls amok in microbes throughout infancy, she may still develop allergies and autoimmune conditions. Microbial exposure can only mitigate, not eliminate, these outcomes. In addition to bacterial influence, Davis says genetic and environmental factors also affect development and immunological health. It’s the combination of these components that will guide many health outcomes.