Inoculating from Birth: How to cultivate a healthy microbiome for your baby before and after birth

Babies inherent microbes from mom throughout pregnancy, during a vaginal delivery, by breastfeeding & the introduction of solid foods. Find out how.

We used to think that we push babies out into the world with a sterile gut, free from bacteria. Today that notion is largely dismissed. Mom’s microbiome influences her babies health far before baby takes its first breath. How do you create a healthy microbiome for your baby?

Mom’s diet and lifestyle (and later on how she chooses to feed her baby) will impact her child’s health and metabolism. Without creating undue stress and burden–causing their own negative impact on mom’s microbiome–what can moms do to make a difference?

The Maternal Microbiome: Before and During Pregnancy

The maternal microbiome exposes baby to mom’s bacterial flora throughout pregnancy, with the mix of microbes changing through each trimester.  What causes these changes? Science has yet to tease out the many details, so we are left to help mom do what she can, which means addressing diet and lifestyle.

Given today’s abundant and often adulterated food supply, women can take this opportunity to clean up their act–if it needs cleaning up–when they first consider getting pregnant or as soon as possible after conception.

  • Women can step up by eating more whole food, choosing organic and sustainably grown produce and animal products when possible.
  • Regular physical activity will help improve energy metabolism and a sense of well being.
  • Some may need to adjust their expectations to reduce stress and anxiety. All of these factors influence mom’s microbiome.

The Maternal Microbiome: Delivery

Babies inherent microbes from mom throughout pregnancy, and more dynamically as they press through to the outside world during a vaginal delivery. Unfortunately medical science learned the hard way that Caesarean sections disrupt the development of microbial communities in infants.

Today the drop in c-section rates at many institutions underscores the medical community’s growing respect for the value of early microbial inoculation. Yet all c-sections can’t be avoided, so in one Swedish study enterprising clinicians exposed baby to mom’s microbiome by swabbing its face with the mother’s vaginal secretions. These babies exhibit a microbiome more similar to vaginally delivered babies.

Cultivating Baby’s Microbiome: Breastmilk or Formula

There’s no surprise here, it is best if mom can breastfeed. Breast tissue and breast milk teem with bacteria and baby nuzzles up to mom at every feeding.

In The Maternal Microbiome Kerry Grens explains that bacteria could be the solution even when breastfeeding isn’t going well. This exciting research has yet to be published, but the authors claim probiotic use showed much more favorable outcomes for mom’s with painful breasts and mastitis than treating them with antibiotics.

On this front, bottle feeding simply can’t compete. Current FDA safety concerns focus on eliminating pathogens, which means good bacteria are destroyed as well.

Despite heroic efforts by formula manufacturers to mimic mother’s milk, there is no replicating mother’s microbiome. We simply need to do more to help moms successfully breastfeed their babies with effective education and support both before and after birth.

Create a Healthy Microbiome for Your Baby: First Solid Foods

So it follows that baby’s first solid foods should also support a healthy microbiome. That means feeding baby a mix of appropriately textured whole foods. Ideally every mom could feed her baby foods grown in a manner that supports microbial diversity, and prepared in a manner that doesn’t kill off the healthy microbes.

All over the globe mothers feed their babies gruel and mashed foods from their own plate, sometimes from their own mouths. These first foods are lower in glycemic index (GI) and glucose load (GL) than conventional baby cereals sold here in the states. The chart below features a range of traditional foods that feed a baby’s healthy microbiome.
Chart shoowing the impact of first foods on the microbiota.

Modugno, BY. Presented to California Academy of Pediatricians, 2013.

In contrast, the most popular infant cereals sold in America are typically formed from highly refined flour, an ingredient with a metabolic impact much like refined sugar. Conventional baby food– even organic baby foods– are heat treated to ensure food safety, thereby killing off beneficial bacteria.

While there is no immediate known harm from feeding babies conventional baby foods, I’d like to see some research. What is the impact of feeding babies whole foods mashed up in the kitchen versus feeding babies from jars and vacuum sealed pouches?  What about all the highly processed and refined snack foods we offer to older infants and toddlers, even if they are organic?

In the absence of research, I’m curious what have you observed. What do you notice when you feed your baby conventional baby food versus fresh food from your own kitchen?

Published on: March 12, 2015
About the Author
Photo of Bonnie Modugno MS RD

Bonnie is a registered dietitian in private practice specializing in energy metabolism, sport nutrition, maternal, infant and child nutrition. You can find more from Bonnie on her blog and on Twitter as @MoreThanFoodInc.

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Thank you for a very informative article. I was pleasantly surprised to find it here on Dr. Greene website. It’s not exactly topic that mothers think about. For those who wish to learn more there is an excellent video series by Dr Suzanne Humphries called Infant Immunity. Part III of the series is called: Birth, placenta, breastmilk with Hilary Butler. She is a midwife and talks in great detail about the babies microbiome and science behind it. It includes everything that is mentioned in this article and has a great deal more information on other issues affecting newborns after birth, such as the impact of vacinations on a babies microbiome.