WHEN BIRTH DOESN’T GO TO PLAN
My pregnancy was completely normal until my water broke at 35 weeks. Over a month early. Until that moment, I envisioned a natural delivery followed by lots of skin to skin contact and breastfeeding Jack from the first moments of his precious little life. These things were my priorities for getting him on track for a healthy immune system and a healthy gut and microbiome.
But fate had other plans. Jack entered the world via emergency C-section, followed by four weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit connected to a PICC line for intravenous antibiotics in order to treat what was diagnosed as a “suspicion” of spinal meningitis. I stayed with him every day, nursing him and lying with him while he was connected to all those tubes and wires until the nurses would basically force me to go home for the evening.
I pumped throughout the night and brought my breast milk to the hospital each morning, only to learn a few weeks into this adventure that they were supplementing my milk with formula to keep his caloric intake up. My husband and I were not pleased, but needless to say, we were in survival mode and all we could think about was getting our baby boy healthy again, and getting him home.
But the nightmare didn’t end once Jack came home. My world spiraled into an even deeper hole of despair when, within days, he presented symptoms of a really bad case of acid-reflux. The doctors told us to start mixing rice cereal into my breastmilk to help him keep it down. I thought to myself, rice at six weeks old? That’s the perfect storm for developing food allergies and who knows what else to come.
I felt completely helpless, and that’s when the guilt really set in. I thought back to when I had this perfect plan for him—now what? He had been through so much.
What could I do to get this little guy’s gut health back on the right track?
THE BABY MICROBIOME
Why was I so focused on Jack’s gut health? Why is the microbiome so important? Your gut microbiome is made up of trillions of “good” bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. It plays a vital role in your health by helping control digestion, benefiting your immune system, and impacting many other aspects of overall health, both physical and mental.
Most doctors didn’t even talk about gut health until recently (and some still don’t). When I asked Jack’s first pediatrician about the impact of the C-section and the antibiotics on his immune system, he quickly dismissed me. “He’ll be fine,” he said, brushing off my questions. I knew then that it was all on me to do the research and figure out a plan.
HOW JACK GOT HEALTHY
Fast forward seven years: Jack is now a super healthy kid (knock on wood)! He still gets the occasional cold or stomach virus, but nothing unusual or noteworthy. The main challenges we’ve had have been skin issues and mild eczema, but we’ve gotten those under control with a few simple changes.
Today, I want to share some of the things that have worked for us.
I would never attempt to oversimplify gut health (as a Functional Medicine Health Coach, I know it’s an extremely complex topic). That said, there are some fairly simple things we can do while our kids are young to set their microbiome up for success!
Here’s my list of the top 10 things you can do to care for your child’s microbiome;
- Don’t make baths a daily thing. This might seem counterintuitive (isn’t cleaner better?). But some of the same “good” bacteria in your gut also exist on your skin, and bathing too often literally washes your microbiome down the drain. A little dirt doesn’t hurt…in fact, it can actually help.
- Eliminate sugary drinks from your house. And for us, this includes juice, too. A diet high in processed foods and added sugars can decrease the amount of good bacteria in your gut. This imbalance can also increase sugar cravings in the long-term and damage the gut even further.
- Incorporate “fun” fermented foods into your meals. Fermented foods foods are rich in probiotics, which means you’re adding beneficial bacteria and enzymes to your intestinal flora every time you eat them. And sure, most kids aren’t into sauerkraut, but ketchup? That’s another story! There are lots of simple, tasty recipes out there for fermenting everyday foods—try a few and see what works for your family.
- Make meds and antibiotics a back-up plan, not a first line of defense. In our house, we let a fever run its course without NSAIDS unless it’s super high for longer than 24 hours. Why? Fever is the body’s natural way of dealing with infection, and medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen are shown to disrupt intestinal integrity. And we’re even more diligent with antibiotics, which have long been linked to deprivation of gut bacteria. It’s important to know that their use should be limited to certain types of infections. For example, viruses aren’t treated with antibiotics, so our son doesn’t take them unless there is a definitive diagnosis of a bacterial infection that can’t be resolved any other way.
- Incorporate a high quality probiotic into your vitamin routine. Probiotics contain live organisms, usually specific strains of bacteria that directly add to the population of healthy microbes in your gut. You can get probiotics through certain foods (the most common is probably yogurt) and by taking supplements. This increases the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system and enhances your immune system.
- Eat the rainbow. Challenging your kids to eat all the colors of the rainbow is an easy and fun way to decrease processed food and increase fruits and veggies. A diet filled with many types of fruits and vegetables increases gut bacteria diversity and increases fiber, which plays a major role in digestive health. Fiber is the fuel the colon uses to stay healthy. It also helps to keep the digestive tract flowing and regular.
- Watch out for gluten. For some people, gluten causes significant problems. If you’re one of these people, gluten can increase intestinal permeability and trigger the autoimmune response and inflammation. I personally live with an intolerance to gluten, so as a rule we avoid bringing products with gluten into our home (this includes personal care products as well).
- Implement healthy sleep habits. Healthy guts are filled with unique, diverse combinations of bacteria, but these bacteria suffer when you don’t sleep enough. Studies have found that sleep loss increases toxins, impairs insulin sensitivity, increases inflammation, and negatively changes the ratio of bacteria in your gut. 10-11 hours a night is about right for a healthy 5-8 year old.
- Substitute natural cleaning products for harsh chemicals. Many of the strong chemical ingredients in today’s cleaning products were put there specifically for their antimicrobial properties. The trouble with this strategy is that these chemicals aren’t selective, so they kill beneficial probiotic organisms along with the stuff we don’t want around. Some of these ingredients, such as parabens, ammonia, chlorine bleach, Triclosan, and triclocarban, can be absorbed through the skin—and once inside your body, they may upset your gut microbial balance.
- Talk to your kids about gut health. Kids are smart, and they crave information! We are super honest with Jack about his journey into this world and why, because of that, we need to take extra special care of his gut health and microbiome. My husband and I do our best to set the example with our own food and lifestyle choices, and we even acknowledge openly when we make choices that may not be so healthy. We’re not perfect, and we’re not pretending like we are—we love a big slice of chocolate cake every now and then! Education and empowerment go hand in hand.
At the end of the day, like all parents, we just want Jack to have a healthy body and a happy mind. We believe that by teaching him the basics of gut health he will learn to make informed and confident choices about his food and lifestyle. We see every day as a new chance to make gut-healthy choices—for him, and our whole family!
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Written by guest blogger, Robin Rodriguez. Mom to Jack, National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach and Director of Marketing & Business Development for the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy.