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The Infant Microbiome: 6 Things Every Parent Should Know

Guest post by Toni Harman

Unleashing the Science: 6 Things Every Parent Should Know About The Infant Microbiome

Filmakers Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford collaborated on MICROBIRTH
Filmakers Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford

For the past five years, I have been fully immersed in bacteria. More specifically, my partner and I have explored the wonders of the human microbiome, the bacterial ecosystem that lays the foundations for lifelong health.

As documentary filmmakers, we’ve been in a privileged position to travel tens of thousands of miles interviewing dozens of world-leading professors.

The result is our award-winning documentary MICROBIRTH, our new book YOUR BABY’S MICROBIOME and also our upcoming educational events, workshops and courses we’re about to unleash to birthworkers.
On our epic journey through the world of bacteria, I’ve been struck by the huge gap that exists between discoveries in scientific labs and what is currently being taught to parents by birth educators. It’s not surprising there is a knowledge gap; academic papers are hard to access and exceptionally difficult to understand by a lay audience (myself included). However, I believe this knowledge is critically important and urgently needs to be accessible to all parents. This information could make a massive difference to a child’s developing immune system, and in turn, to a child’s lifelong health.

My partner and I want to change this. We want to help bridge the gap between scientists and parents by making the latest science accessible, easy-to-understand and easy-to-digest. With this in mind, here’s some essential points about the infant microbiome.

6 Things Every Parent Should Know About The Infant Microbiome

  1. The microbiome is the collective term for the trillions of microorganisms that live on and in us. These microorganisms include bacteria, fungi and viruses. Together, they play an essential role in human digestion, metabolism and are integral to the immune system.
  2. Pregnancy affects the infant microbiome. As the mother’s microbes are passed to her child during vaginal birth and breastfeeding, it’s important for an expectant mother to look after her microbes. Limiting processed foods, eating a diverse range of fresh fruit and vegetables, perhaps including fermented and high-fibre foods plus taking a sensible approach to antibiotics and anti-bacterial products.
  3. Vaginal birth transfer’s the mother’s bacteria to the baby. As soon as the mother’s waters break, the baby is exposed to the mother’s vaginal microbes in her birth canal, then more microbes are acquired from contact with the mother’s fecal matter, from skin-to-skin and breastfeeding, and from every touch and every breath.
  4. Microbes acquired from the mother help optimally train the infant immune system. The baby’s immune system is born naïve, and bacteria from the baby’s mother help train the immune system to correctly identify what is friend and what is foe.
  5. C-section could interfere with the ‘main seeding event’ for founding the baby’s microbiome. As a baby born by C-section is not likely to acquire the full complement of the mother’s vaginal and gut microbes, and could also be impacted by antibiotics, this could mean that the baby’s immune system is impacted, with ramifications for a child’s lifelong health.
  6. The critical importance of breastfeeding. As well as delivering the perfect nutrition, immune components, antibodies, over 700 species of microbes and other living ingredients, breast milk also contain special sugars called human milk oligosaccharides. These feed the mother’s microbes newly arrived in the baby’s gut, encouraging the ‘good bacteria’ to flourish.

If you would like more information about the microbiome:

Science refs:

  • Dietert, Rodney R., and Janice M. Dietert. “The Completed Self: An Immunological View of the Human-Microbiome Superorganism and Risk of Chronic Diseases.” Entropy 14 (2012): 2036–65, doi:10.3390/e14112036.
  • Noel T. Mueller, Elizabeth Bakacs, Joan Combellick, Zoya Grigoryan, and Maria G. Dominguez-Bello, “The Infant Microbiome Development: Mom Matters,” Trends in Molecular Medicine 21, no. 2 (January 8, 2015): 109–17, doi:10.1016/j. molmed.2014.12.002.
  • Azad MB , Konya T , Persaud RR , Guttman DS , Chari RS , Field CJ , Sears MR , Mandhane PJ , Turvey SE, Subbarao P , Becker AB , Scott JA , Kozyrskyj AL , CHILD Study Investigators. Impact of maternal intrapartum antibiotics, method of birth and breastfeeding on gut microbiota during the first year of life: a prospective cohort study. BJOG : an international journal of obstetrics and gynaecology. 2016; 123(6): 983-993.

The film MICROBIRTH, Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford