From the delightful baby and toddler years to school-age and beyond, kids of every age approach the world with energy, curiosity, wonder, and yes—a seemingly infinite range of emotions and behaviors. As parents, sometimes it can feel like our kids are on a never-ending emotional roller coaster, but new research shows that our children might not be as responsible for their behavior as we think.
What else, besides their fantastic personality, could be contributing to your child’s morning meltdown or dinnertime dive into destruction? The answer lies, quite literally, in the gut. Researchers are discovering that the trillions of microbes in your child’s digestive tract—also called their gut microbiome—could be influencing their behavior.
What is a Microbiome, Anyway?
Did you know that we are actually more microbial (about 90%) than human? Our microbiome is all of the bacteria (both good and bad) throughout our body, and the good news is that, ideally, about 85% of the microbes are probiotics working on our behalf to help us digest foods and absorb nutrients, regulate our immune system, balance our blood sugar, help determine our emotions, and even boost our metabolism.
Within our whole-body microbiome are also several smaller microbiomes, like the oral microbiome, the urogenital microbiome, and the gut microbiome. But when it comes to our emotions and behavior, the microbiome that matters most is the one in our digestive tract, which is home to the greatest amount of bacteria in our entire body.
Emotions Begin in the Gut
It turns out you really can have a “gut feeling.” You see, the microbes in our gut can communicate with our brain via the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that extends from the brainstem all the way into the abdomen. Not only do our beneficial gut bacteria have access to this information superhighway, but they help to produce and regulate many of the neurotransmitters that our brain needs to relay signals throughout our body.
Some probiotics (called psychobiotics, due to their effect on mood) can produce the “happy” and “calming” chemicals, serotonin1 and GABA2. Beneficial bacteria can also have a stress-relieving effect on our entire system by increasing oxytocin3, the “cuddle” hormone, and reducing the “stress” hormone, cortisol1.
Given all that these miraculous microbes do to help keep us happy, relaxed, and healthy, it’s no wonder that they have a profound effect on people of every age—and kids are no exception.
The Child Microbiome
The first couple of years of your child’s life are crucial for proper microbiome development. Although your baby’s gut is mostly sterile in the womb (the placenta does contain some microbes), the major microbial inoculation begins as your baby descends through the birth canal, picking up your vaginal bacteria along the way. Breast milk also provides tons of microbes and as your child gets older and begins to eat solid foods, their microbiome continues to develop based on dietary, lifestyle, environmental, and many other factors. By about age two, a toddler’s microbiome resembles that of an adult.
This developmental phase makes the childhood years ideal for studying how microbiome development affects long-term health. In one groundbreaking study, researchers at Ohio State University discovered that the composition of the gut microbiome appears to be associated with temperament in young children.
By analyzing the gut microbes of 77 toddlers ages 18 to 27 months, scientists were able to correlate certain behavioral traits with specific bacterial species. In general, kids with more diverse microbiomes tended to be more curious, positive, social, extroverted, and impulsive, while lower overall bacterial diversity was linked with more fear, cuddliness, and self-restraint4.
So, what does this all mean? Researchers hypothesize that gut microbes, by modulating stress hormones like cortisol, could be having an effect on how children interact with people or react in new situations. In other words, an outgoing, social, and confident child may have a more diverse microbiome—and therefore fewer stress hormones circulating through her body—than a shy, reserved kid who is hesitant in new situations. Research also shows that digestive flora play a role in childhood behaviors like the ability to focus, follow instructions, and even sit still5.
Building the Infant Microbiome
If you’re pregnant or have an infant, you can take some steps early on to make sure your baby’s microbiome develops properly:
• Nurture your microbiome. As with many things in life, it all starts with mom. Because you pass your own microbes on to your baby during delivery and through your breast milk, the health of your microbiome is what sets the stage for your baby’s microbiome development and long-term wellness. Here’s the problem: if you don’t have enough of the good microbes to pass on, your baby won’t inherit what they need for proper microbial and immune system development. Taking a high-quality, daily probiotic formula like Hyperbiotics PRO-Moms will give your gut the fortification it needs to deliver plenty of the good guy bacteria to your little one.
• Breastfeed for as long as you can. Breastfeeding exclusively for at least the first six months is crucial for maintaining your baby’s virgin gut: a gut unaffected by anything that can harm their fragile new microbiome. Once you start feeding your baby solids, keep up with breastfeeding as long as you can—breast milk is full of beneficial microbes and special sugars that feed and nourish the probiotics so they can thrive. And don’t give up! Many toddlers will happily nurse through their third birthday, enabling their microbiome to develop just as nature intended.
By nurturing your microbiome before birth and breastfeeding your baby for as long as possible, you are setting your child up with a strong foundation of health. But, it doesn’t stop there! A properly nourished microbiome is the result of conscious attention and care through all the childhood years.
Influencing Your Child’s Microbial Mix
Let’s face it—you can’t (nor would you want to) change your child’s incredible, innate personality. But, nurturing and balancing their gut microbiome may help them navigate the exciting, challenging, and emotional childhood years before they are ready to spread their wings and set off on their own.
Here are four tips for keeping your child’s microbiome—and behavior—in tip-top shape.
1. Eat fermented foods and prebiotics. We all know that kids can have picky palates, but the sooner you start introducing interesting new foods to your child, the more likely they are to be willing to try—and enjoy—more exotic tastes.
Tip: Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha contain loads of probiotics that can work to boost your child’s count of beneficial bacteria. Also make sure to focus on prebiotics, indigestible fibers that are a stellar food source for friendly microbes; good sources include bananas, oats, honey, asparagus, jicama, and Jerusalem artichoke.
2. Avoid unnecessary medications and antibacterial cleansers. Unfortunately, certain medications, antibiotics (both in food and as medicine), and antibacterial cleaners and other household and environmental toxins can indiscriminately wipe out good bacteria in the gut, leaving both your and your child’s microbiomes depleted and out of balance.
Tip: Choose antibiotic-free foods and steer away from unnecessary medications and antimicrobial products whenever possible. Natural products and gentle cleansers like baking soda and apple cider vinegar are often all you need!
3. Give probiotics. Even if you do everything you can to support your child’s gut flora, some probiotic-killing environmental factors (like airborne toxins and chlorine-infused water) are simply hard to avoid. A daily probiotic supplement can work to continually replenish this essential beneficial flora to help your kids feel and function at their best.
Tip: Look for an effective multi-strain kids’ probiotic formula like PRO-Kids that provides protection from stomach acids to ensure your kid gets a steady and potent dose of gut-friendly goodness.
4. Let them play! With today’s overscheduled and harried lifestyles, kids often miss out on one of the most important rites of childhood: unstructured playtime. Not only does plenty of time playing help to alleviate stress—a well-known microbiome diminisher—but studies show that increased physical activity can also lead to a more balanced microbiome6.
Tip: Encourage your child to take time off between scheduled activities like school and sports to really unwind and play. Even better? Send them outside, where they will be exposed to all of the healthy microbes that help to keep their immune system strong all year long.
Now that we know how important kids’ gut microbiomes are to their emotions and behavior, we can take steps to nurture and nourish their microscopic friends within, so they can move into their next stage of life with confidence, health, and happiness.
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.