How To Support Your Baby’s Microbiome After Birth

Are you familiar with the microbiome? This important ecosystem of bacteria lives on all of our bodies and helps us live our healthiest lives. Your newborn baby’s microbiome is a key part of their immune system and can have a very real impact on their long-term health. Feels like big stakes, right? Well, yes, but don’t freak out! Here’s what you can do, as a parent, to support your newborn baby’s microbiome after birth.

What is the microbiome?

The microbiome is the giant, invisible ecosystem of bacteria that live in and on our bodies, including our guts, skin, genitalia, and more. You are home to trillions of bacteria, many of which do important jobs to keep you healthy. Essential for immunity, digestion, and other aspects of health, the bacteria in your microbiome are the unseen helpers who balance your body and are affected by many factors, including your environment, diet, stress levels, and more. This applies to babies and children, too!

What affects a newborn’s microbiome?

There are a few factors that can affect a newborn’s microbiome both in the womb and during the birth process. If you received antibiotics in labor, had a Cesarean birth, or if your baby was in the NICU (or was born prematurely and was in the NICU), chances are their microbiome was affected, as these factors have been shown to result in less beneficial microbiome makeup in infants. But don’t feel guilty or worry—sometimes these situations happen! There’s still a lot you can do to boost your baby’s good gut bacteria. For example, according to one 2020 study in BMC Pediatrics, breastfeeding was able to restore the gut microbiota in babies born via Cesarean (check out our tips for how to make lactating after a surgical birth work!)

Supporting Your Baby’s Microbiome

Do skin-to-skin

Your own microbiome is all over your skin! So doing lots of skin-to-skin with your newborn is an easy and cuddly way to pass the good bacteria you’ve developed as an adult on to your little one. Science says the same: some studies found that premature babies that were held skin-to-skin have different bacteria in their oral and gut microbiome when compared with babies who were not held skin-to-skin. Even better? Skin-to-skin contact also has a host of other benefits for both you and your little one!

Limit baths

Again, think of the many bacteria and fungi that live on our skin. When you limit baths, you allow those to proliferate on your baby’s skin (and the rest of their body), rather than washing them away with harsh soaps. If you do need to bathe—hey, blow-outs happen!—use water only, water mixed with human milk, or a very gentle soap that is NOT antibacterial.

Consider probiotics

If you want, you may give probiotics to your baby. Yes, even if they are a newborn. In general, research indicates that probiotics are a safe intervention for healthy infants. You may want to consider this even more if you are feeding your baby with formula, since the baby is not getting the benefits of human milk (see more on that below).

Ask your baby’s healthcare provider (pediatrician, family doctor, nurse practitioner, etc) about doing so before you take the plunge—especially because some research has proved inconclusive about the role of probiotic supplementation for infants. They may have recommendations for specific brands to try or strains of bacteria to look for (like bifidobacteria). Make sure whatever you try is formulated specifically for infants, too!

Feed human milk

Feeding your baby human milk (whether it’s your own or donor milk) can go a long way to helping them support their microbiome. After all, breastmilk is made up of innumerable beneficial bacteria and compounds that support babies’ current and long-term health and growth. Formula-feeding has been found to alter the microbial content of infants’ guts. Research shows again and again that human milk seeds the infant’s gut with “good” bacteria.

Any amount of human milk, for whatever length of time, can help in this process—so it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Whenever possible, it’s ideal to feed the baby at the breast/chest to also get the benefits of skin-to-skin contact for the microbiome (if you’re feeding formula or donor milk, you may want to try a supplemental nursing system or SNS to help you do that). Giving your baby human milk is one of the best ways to improve the newborn microbiome!