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The Gut Microbes and Poop

Written by Jennifer Tow, IBCLC   
Saturday, 01 December 2012 00:00
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What Number Two can tell you about the number one person in your life.

There’s a topic I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about…to the point that I think I may be obsessed. To put it into perspective, I live in Paris. Just wandering through the streets of the city in the springtime is a visceral experience worthy of song and poetry and—of course—blog posts. The other day, I was walking the dog with my 12-year-old son, thinking about the gut and the brain. Not the way they communicate, but the way they are. The way we are.

I caught myself as I hurried to catch up to Leo. I slipped my arm into his and set a pace to match him, as I finally took in the sun, the breeze and the perfect beauty of the day. I pushed the other thought away…for a while. Clearly, it has returned. It always returns, because mommas and babies and families are not as well as we could be. Not by a long shot.

As a lactation consultant, I used to think about breastfeeding. I thought about my own babies, my clients and their babies, and what I read and observed and learned. I loved nursing my babies, and I love helping other mommas nurse their babies. So, I am still a lactation consultant, but now I pretty much think about the gut. And all that is associated with the gut—like the brain, hormones, the nervous system, structure, personality, emotions and general well-being. Because I think about the gut and the brain, I also think a lot about bacteria and inflammation. Not because bacteria cause inflammation, but because more often than not, lack of bacteria does.

In essence, bacteria are the way we are. Today, I took my son to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The building is ancient, of course, but so are the displays. The cursive handwriting on the jars intrigued me as much as the specimens. There were thousands of skeletons and fossils and organs of species long extinct and of those still here…including Homo sapiens. Leo asked me what was here before any of them. “Microbes,” I said.


Microorganisms and Your Little One

Microbes have a 3.4 billion history on Earth and microbial mats are the oldest known ecosystem on Earth. Whatever form life on Earth takes, microbes share the journey with us. They are the way we are; they are the way that life is. NASA and other scientific sources use the term co-evolution to describe the fact that all life has evolved in relation to microbes. Microorganisms can form endosymbiotic relationships with other organisms. Examples are rampant, but the relationship that interests me is the one between the bacteria that live within the human digestive system and the human organism itself. These microbes synthesize vitamins, ferment complex indigestible carbohydrates, contribute to immunity and even influence our personalities and cognitive functioning. They drive our relationship with the world around us.

So, how does this relate to babies, birth and infant feeding? In every possible way, it turns out. While the infant gestates in a sterile environment, the mother’s body is prepared at birth to immediately alter that scenario, exposing the newborn to her own microbes, inoculating him with the flora that will rapidly multiply, populating his gut. As the infant journeys through the birth canal, he is exposed to a medley of microbes, designed to optimize his potential for thriving in the world his mother inhabits. The inner terrain and the outer terrain find perfect balance in the transition from intra-uterine to extra-uterine life.

According to archaeologist and prebiotic researcher Jeff Leach, “…this cycle links the co-evolution of intestinal ‘microflora’ of the mother to child, and may represent a more significant bond for those who understand it exist [sic]. This evolutionary bacterial rite of passage has been and continues to be critical to the success of our species, and all mammals for that matter.” Once inoculated in the birth canal, the baby is further populated by the microbes in his mother’s milk, on her skin and in her mouth. In the normal physiologic process of birth and feeding, the infant is being prepared for life in the world the mother’s body has adapted to survive in.

This is where my head starts to whirl. I ask question after question, trying to make all the connections. There is no doubt, given the physiology of this process, that several things should and should not happen. First, babies clearly need to be born vaginally. At birth they need to be touched only by their mothers and they need to go to breast. They need to be kissed by their mothers. This process of inoculation by microbes that initiates in the birth canal is given robust life at the breast. The human organism, which contains 10 times more bacteria than human cells, has its blueprint for functional health and well-being laid down in utero and is given form and structure in the birth canal and at breast.

Human milk contains carbohydrates known as oligosaccharides, which are virtually absent in cow milk. They are undigested in the stomach and small intestine and are able to reach the colon intact, where they provide food for the bifidobacterium, enabling them to multiply rapidly. Now, here are two pieces of interesting information that fit a lot of things together. First, again according to Jeff Leach, “As the bacteria thrive on this ‘food’ from mother’s milk, they grow in number and absorb water, resulting in more regular and soft bowel movements. It’s important to know that the bulk of infant feces are made up of live and kicking bacteria.” Secondly, the insoluble fiber in human milk acts as a kind of irritant in the gut, causing the production of a lubricant that further speeds up the process of elimination.

Someday, I am going to write “Confessions of an IBCLC Heretic,” because for almost 20 years, I have been saying that it is absolutely not normal for babies of any age to have fewer than several significant bowel movements per day. Not per week; per day. The more I learn about the gut and the gut-brain axis, the more I have to learn. But I am confident that human milk is not “all used up” and that babies are not “efficient enough that there is no waste.”

Such comments do not even bear up under the scrutiny of common sense. If all those babies who stop pooping at 4 to 6 weeks are using up all the milk, what are the babies who are pooping 6 to 8 times per day doing? Making it? Babies need to poop.