The first year of an infant’s life is one of the most critical periods for their overall development. The daily changes are plain to see on the outside, but there are also changes going on behind the scenes, in the baby’s gut for example. And these gut microbes change depending on various choices the infant’s parents make in the first year.
Scientists are now trying to figure out how and why these choices have such a significant effect on the medical conditions that the babies might contract later on in life. This might be highly beneficial for new parents and the overall health of newborn babies.
During a study conducted in 2017, scientists analyzed microbes from 166 infant guts. The study started when the babies were three months old and finished when they were 12 months of age.
Initial findings revealed that feeding children baby formula and not breast milk, cesarean births, and giving antibiotics during the first year all affect whether or not the baby might contract a disease later in life. And while there is a certain correlation, scientists are not jumping to any conclusions. There is still no way to determine what exactly makes a certain gut microbiome healthy or unhealthy. This is both true for infants and adults. Additionally, it remains to be seen whether the presence or absence of a particular bacterium actually adds to the development of specific ailments.
Even if there is much more work to be done to prove all of these findings, they are in no way surprising. One thing that is certain is that a baby who is born vaginally acquires a specific microbe while exiting the canal. Babies born by way of a cesarean section are not exposed to those same microbes. Breast milk is also full of bacteria that are vital to the gut biome, and it is also the only source of these microbes when a baby is born. Researchers are trying to create a formula that can mimic this, but breast milk is still proving to be superior. Administering antibiotics is also supposed to be avoided as they destroy important gut bacterium. This is true for all stages of life, but it is of greater importance during infancy. A poorly timed dose might lead to a complete change in intestinal development.
There were prior studies that looked at cesarean sections, formula feeding, and antibiotics as primary parameters. The issue is that they only looked at babies who had at least two of the three factors. They did not look at the individual effects.
When a baby was born vaginally, breastfed, and did not receive any antibiotics, researchers saw an increase in the number of Firmicutes and Bacteroides and a decrease in Proteobacteria. When one of the factors was changed, a change in the levels of these bacteria also occurred. The biggest issue is that scientists still have no clear idea what a healthy gut biome is, whether in an adult or an infant. Adult gut biomes vary vastly due to different dietary choices.
For now, the idea is that doctors might be able to predict various health outcomes by observing a person’s gut microbial profiles. One example might be the difference between infants who are breastfed vs. the formula-fed ones as there is a chance that formula-fed infants might have a harder time shedding excess weight as they grow older.
Unfortunately, until scientists determine what exactly constitutes a healthy gut biome, this is all just guesswork. As soon as scientists figure out how these three factors influence the gut, they are also going to be able to develop ways to fix unhealthy biomes.
There are very few people on this planet who enjoy their work more than Aner Banner. His friends often readily admit that Aner eats, sleeps, and breaths science 24 hours a day. He is always challenging old methods, proposing new ideas, and seeking to solve difficult problems. Aner spends most of the day imparting his wisdom to the young minds of a small elementary school. Thankfully he has also mastered the art of making science come alive for the future leaders of our nation. He is loved and well respected by students, parents, and faculty alike. His motto forever remains “never stop learning.