How to Protect Your Baby From Allergies: Nurture Their Gut
If you are like most parents, you began watching for signs of eczema almost the moment you carried your baby home from the hospital. Allergies are very common in children: More than 25 percent of infants develop eczema and 20 percent show some sensitivity to common foods by their first birthday. Although most of these reactions qualify as inconvenient, parents worry because some can be life-threatening.
In Westernized countries, the incidence of allergies is increasing rapidly; many experts believe environmental factors are to blame. Numerous studies support the so-called “hygiene hypothesis”, the theory that children raised in overly clean environments are predisposed to developing allergies because their exposure to a wide range of bacteria has been reined in. For instance, a study of more than 750 infants showed disparities in the gut bacteria of those raised in families where antibacterial cleaning products were in regular use. A type of bacteria known to increase the risk of developing allergies was unusually prevalent. Children raised in households that used standard detergents or eco-friendly cleaners displayed more positive bacteria.
The food a baby eats, the air they breathe and the surfaces they touch are all populated by bacteria, some of which take up residence in the gut, A healthy gut is characterized by diversity in the types of bacteria that call it home, as well as a positive ratio of wellness-supporting species and it is linked with a strong immune system.
Researchers have identified differences in the gut bacteria of infants who are allergic and those who aren’t. In general terms children with the most abundant and diverse bacteria are the least likely to suffer from allergies.
Based on that science, here are some things you can do to strengthen your baby’s immune system:
Protect your baby from becoming allergic while you are pregnant
Studies show that pregnant women living in what experts call a “high microbial environment” --- perhaps an organic farm, complete with animals ---have babies that are far less likely to become allergic. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Amish children, who were raised on small, agriculturally diverse farms had far richer and more diverse gut bacteria than a control group with less exposure to microbes. They also had significantly lower rates of asthma.
Obviously, small-scale farm life isn’t possible for everyone. However, sharing your home with a companion animal like a dog has been shown to enrich the microbes residing there. And a diet high in fermented foods such as yogurt, as well as fiber-rich plant foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains bolsters the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, supporting prenatal development. “Good guy” bacteria convert food to valuable substances like vitamins and short-chain fatty acids, which have been shown to encourage healthy immune system development in offspring.
Make your child’s birth as natural and stress-free as possible.
How a baby arrives in the world also influences their susceptibility to allergies. Babies delivered vaginally have larger and more diverse communities of bacteria than those delivered via caesarean section. However, chronic stress while pregnant can upset the balance of vaginal bacteria, offsetting some of this advantage.
Breastfeeding is very beneficial for babies in part because it contains complex carbohydrates that encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria. A 2017 study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, showed that in the first month of life, babies get almost 30 percent of their gut bacteria from breast milk and about 10 percent from skin contact with the breast.
Provide your infant with a balanced diet of nutritious whole foods.
After birth, your child’s immune system is still ”plastic,” which means it is still developing. Children have a strong need for fiber -- found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Fiber promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and research has linked foods high in that nutrient with strong immune systems. For instance, one study found that children who ate whole grains were far less likely to develop asthma and wheezing. Whole grains, along with some other foods like milk, legumes and soft cheeses also provide oligosaccharides, found in breast milk. Consumption of this substance has been shown to reduce the incidence of allergic conditions like asthma and hives in infants.
Use antibiotics with caution.
When properly used, antibiotics can be a powerful weapon against disease. However, In killing pathogens, antibiotics also wipe out beneficial gut bacteria, undermining immune system development. One study published in the Journal of Genome Medicine linked antibiotic use during infancy and early childhood with an increased risk of childhood infections, asthma and allergies.
Limit Exposure to Toxins.
Because their immune systems and lungs are not fully developed, babies are likely to react to environmental triggers. Infants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, which has been linked with asthma and various types of hypersensitive reactions like dermatitis.
The thriving universe of microbes that live in and on the body is fundamental to your baby’s immune health. By helping to boost its development you can increase the odds that your baby won’t become allergic.
If you’re looking to learn more about prenatal nutrition, check out Mom’s Pre-Pregnancy Diet Could Impact Baby’s Genes.