From the Cow and Gate Nutrition Team
The beneficial bacteria in the gut, or gut flora, play an important role in infants’ nutrition, physiology and natural immunity. They have a range of functions including: 1 ,2
- Synthesis of vitamins
- Activation of the immune system
- Inhibition of harmful pathogens
- Lowering pH in the colon (harmful to pathogens)
- Synthesis of digestive enzymes
- Support of the gut barrier
With such a wide range of functions, it’s clear to see how the bacteria inside a baby’s gut might influence their health and wellbeing. The link between gut flora, health and disease becomes apparent from the earliest stages of life and continues as the infant grows and develops. 3,4
But a healthy gut cannot be achieved with just any bacteria. Babies need to acquire the right types of bacteria.
Acquiring the right bacteria
Initial colonisation of a baby’s gut flora is largely acquired at birth. After this initial colonisation, the composition is influenced by a complex variety of physiological, cultural, and environmental factors.5-9
Early dietary exposure has a strong influence on the composition of the gut flora.10 Breastmilk naturally contains a range of oligosaccharides – non-digestible carbohydrates that selectively stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.10-12
Breastfed babies are more likely to develop a gut flora dominated by these types of bacteria.11,12
For babies who are not breastfed, mums can encourage the development of beneficial bacteria in the gut by choosing a formula that contains either:
- Prebiotic oligosaccharides: non-digestible carbohydrates that selectively stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria.13,14 Different formulas may contain different types and amounts of prebiotics.
- Probiotics: a culture of live bacteria. 2
Please note that probiotic-supplemented formulas are not available in Ireland. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland states that infant formulas must be made with boiled water that has been cooled to 70°C. This process would kill any probiotic bacteria.
Breastfeeding is best for infants as it is perfectly suited to nourish infants and protect them from illnesses such as ear infections, stomach upsets, diabetes, eczema and obesity. Infant formula is suitable from birth when babies are not breastfed.
It is recommended that all formula milks be used on the advice of a doctor, midwife, public health nurse, dietitian, pharmacist or other professional responsible for maternal and child care.
1. BOURLIOUX P ET AL. THE INTESTINE AND ITS MICROFLORA ARE PARTNERS FOR THE PROTECTION OF THE HOST. AM J CLIN NUTR 2003; 78: 675–683.
2. O’TOOLE PW & COONEY JC. PROBIOTIC BACTERIA INFLUENCE THE COMPOSITION AND FUNCTION OF THE INTESTINAL MICROBIOTA. INTERDISCIP PERFECT INFECT DIS 2008; 175–285.
3. MARTIN R ET AL. EARLY LIFE: GUT MICROBIOTA AND IMMUNE DEVELOPMENT IN INFANCY. BENEF MICROBES 2010; 1: 367–382.
4. WOPEREIS H ET AL. THE FIRST THOUSAND DAYS – INTESTINAL MICROBIOLOGY OF EARLY LIFE: ESTABLISHING A SYMBIOSIS. PEDIATR ALLERGY IMMUNOL 2014; 25: 428–438.
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8. GUINANE CM, COTTER PD. ROLE OF THE GUT MICROBIOTA IN HEALTH AND CHRONIC GASTROINTESTINAL DISEASE: UNDERSTANDING A HIDDEN METABOLIC ORGAN. THERAP ADV GASTROENTEROL 2013; 6: 295–308.
9. WESTERBEEK EA ET AL. THE INTESTINAL BACTERIAL COLONISATION IN PRETERM INFANTS: A REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE. CLIN NUTR 2006; 25: 361–368.
10. SHAMIR R ET AL. GUT HEALTH IN EARLY LIFE: SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GUT MICROBIOTA AND NUTRITION FOR DEVELOPMENT AND FUTURE HEALTH. ESSENTIAL KNOWLEDGE BRIEFING, WILEY, CHICHESTER (2015).
11. HARMSEN HJM ET AL. ANALYSIS OF INTESTINAL FLORA DEVELOPMENT IN BREASTFED AND FORMULA FED INFANTS BY USING MOLECULAR IDENTIFICATION AND DETECTION METHODS. J PED GASTROENTROL NUTR 2000; 30: 61–67.
12. BOEHM G & STAHL B. OLIGOSACCHARIDES FROM MILK. J NUTR 2007; 137: 847S–849S.
13. GIBSON GR & ROBERFROID M. DIETARY MODULATION OF THE HUMAN COLIC MICROBIOTA: INTRODUCING THE CONCEPT OF PREBIOTICS. J NUTR 1995; 125: 1201–1212.
14. MORO G ET AL. DOSAGE RELATED BIFIDOGENIC EFFECTS OF GALACTO- AND FRUCTO-OLIGOSACCHARIDES IN FORMULA FED TERM INFANTS. J PEDIATR GASTROENTEROL NUTR 2002; 34: 291–295