Recent research has shed light on the importance of gut microbiota both during pregnancy and early life. Despite recent research that shows the placenta is not sterile, as previously thought, gut microbiota colonization in the first days and weeks after birth appears to have enormous significance for post-natal life, says Professor Olivier Goulet, from Hospital Necker-Enfants Malades (Paris, France).

According to Goulet, early gut implementation or microbial colonisation after birth has a considerable impact upon the health of the child and the future adult. Yet some factors can perturb this first colonisation, such as prematurity and the type of delivery, caesarean section (C-section) instead of vaginal delivery.

“Although C-section is an excellent tool for saving lives, the first step in birth should be the swallowing of a mixture of the microbiota of the vaginal route and the microbiota of the mother’s feces by the baby. If you miss this step, you obviously change the course of gut microbiota implementation,” states Goulet.

In addition, both breastfeeding and the use of antibiotics during early life are factors that affect the infant gut microbiota. Of these, the most important factor for future health is not yet known. Goulet says epidemiological data suggests a link between the mode of delivery and the later onset of type 1 diabetes and future autoimmune and metabolic diseases.

“There is a parallel between the first 1000 days for metabolic diseases and the first 1000 days for the microbiota programming; maybe there is a link between both,” considers Goulet.

The French clinician highlights ways to try to compensate for some of the factors—for instance, a C-section delivery—in order to minimise the consequences for future health. Goulet points out that breastmilk is rich in oligosaccharides, nutrients which are beneficial for gut microbiota. He believes the use of probiotics and prebiotics is also promising, and is engaged in researching how fermented milk formulas could potentially mimic human milk.

“There is now growing evidence that yogurt protects in adulthood against diabetes and other metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Thus, we may consider that for babies, fermented infant formula may be as beneficial as yogurt is for adults,” he says.