Whether you’re already snuggling up to your newborn or still anxiously awaiting the arrival of your bundle of joy, you’re likely immersed in all things baby: shades of baby blue, pink, and yellow; baby’s perfectly soft skin; the loving coos of friends and family.
In the midst of all these things, you may not be thinking about one important part of pregnancy: Your microbiome and, consequently, your baby’s.
We all have our own unique gut microbiome that supports our immune system, mental health, digestion, and other things going on inside our bodies. As adults, our microbiomes consist of trillions of tiny organisms, but babies aren’t born with mature colonies — it all starts with the microbes that come from mom.
With all that in mind, here are five things you should know about gut health and pregnancy.
1. Your gut changes drastically during pregnancy.
The human body is already remarkable: So many mechanisms and functions whirring simultaneously to keep us alive and well. But the human body during pregnancy, well, that’s a whole new level of remarkable. During pregnancy, a woman’s blood volume increases, her breasts prepare to provide milk, and even her brain changes to better support a child.
In addition to all those changes, a pregnant woman’s microbiome also undergoes some serious alterations. The gut actually de-diversifies during pregnancy, making room for the microorganisms that will best support the baby’s development. The state of inflammation in the gut also varies throughout pregnancy, and while inflammation is usually associated with disease, higher levels during pregnancy are sometimes a good thing.
2. What you eat during pregnancy can affect your baby’s microbiome.
Well, duh, right? Your baby is literally inside of you, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the foods you put inside your body affect the growing baby that’s also in there. Research shows that an unhealthy diet during pregnancy can have long-term consequences on your baby’s health. The opposite is also true: A healthy diet rich in produce, whole grains, and lean protein during pregnancy can contribute positively to your baby’s health after delivery. And it’s not just physical health.
To really up the ante and ensure baby’s got a healthy gut upon delivery, consider taking prebiotic and probiotic supplements during pregnancy. Your best bet is one that covers all three cornerstones of a healthy gut: good bacteria, good fungi, and digestive enzymes (Learn more: Why you should care about the fungi in your gut).
3. What You Eat Before Pregnancy Can Affect Your Baby’s Microbiome.
This one’s a little more surprising than the last, right? It seems obvious that what you eat during pregnancy affects your little one, but most new moms don’t consider that what they eat before pregnancy also affects baby. Infants are exposed to their mother’s microbes in the placenta, which is how the colonization of babies’ microbiomes begin. So the state of your microbiome at the time of conception can affect your baby’s gut in the long run.
The best time to start cleaning up your gut — pregnant or not — is now. If you aren’t pregnant, eating a microbiome-friendly diet before you conceive is the best way to ensure that you pass along good gut microbes to your baby. If you’re already pregnant, it’s not too late to make helpful changes. You and your baby will both benefit from your healthy diet (Learn more: The top 10 foods you should avoid for optimal gut health).
4. Your Delivery Method Affects Your Baby’s Microbiome.
Although most women don’t really have a choice when it comes to delivery method, it’s worth knowing that it makes a difference.
Want to know something super cool? Not only does your gut microbiome change during pregnancy, but your vaginal microbiome actually changes to mimic your gut leading up to delivery. This happens so that your baby can get maximum exposure to beneficial microbes when they’re born — another reason you should pay attention to your diet before and during pregnancy.
Research has shown us that babies delivered vaginally have different gut bacteria than babies delivered via c-section, particularly that the microbiome of vaginally born babies resembles their mother’s, while c-section babies have more bacteria associated with hospital environments.
Don’t fret if you’ve had or will have a c-section: The research in this area is still relatively undeveloped, and your baby is not doomed to have lifelong gut issues. You can still foster a very healthy microbiome by breastfeeding and engaging in plenty of skin-to-skin contact with your newborn. Plus, you can always try vaginal swabbing to help restore the microbiome your baby missed out on.
5. Your Breast Milk Matters.
In a perfect world, all mothers would supply enough healthy breast milk to nourish their babies. Breast milk contains something called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) that don’t provide any nutrition to the baby itself — HMOs are food for gut microbes. There are about 150 different types of these HMOs and they all benefit baby’s gut and immune system. Additionally, your breast milk contains the ideal ratio of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to properly nourish your newborn.
And you can probably guess that your diet still matters postpartum. The healthier your diet, the healthier your breast milk, and the healthier little baby will be.
Unfortunately, for some moms, breastfeeding isn’t an option for one reason or another. If this is the case for you, you might consider exploring the idea of breast milk donors. And if that’s not the right route for you, look into infant formula with prebiotics as a substitute for HMOs.
How To Support Gut Health While You’re Pregnant
All of the same guidelines for gut health before pregnancy apply to gut health during pregnancy:
- Diversify your consumption of plant foods — try new fruits and vegetables! (Learn more: 7 double-duty foods to add to your diet).
- Stay hydrated and limit caffeine and sugary drinks (even all-natural juices)
- Get enough sleep and manage your stress levels
- Exercise, but talk to your physician about what kind of physical activity is right for you during pregnancy
Learn more: 5 powerful foods to reboot your gut health.
A Word From Dr. G
Pregnancy and childbirth are miraculous happenings, and what makes these life events even more special is that every pregnancy and every delivery is unique to mom and baby — keep that in mind as you research pregnancy advice. Articles, including this one, are only meant to serve as guides and helpful resources. Always talk to your physician or obstetrician for advice that will best suit you and your baby.