Does Your Child Have a Healthy Gut? Plus 5 Tips to Support Gut Health
The digestive system is home to millions of bacteria, called our gut microbiome. Ideally, these bacteria are in a balance that supports the way our gut functions as well as our overall health. When they’re out of balance, however, this can lead to a number of issues.
While there’s a lot of talk about gut health for adults, this leaves many parents and caregivers wondering how to identify and address gut health in their kids. Here are some potential gut complaints in kids and tips for improving it.
What Your Gut May Be Telling You
Kids’ digestive tracts undergo changes as their immune system develops and they’re exposed to new things. When your child’s gut is healthy and functioning normally, there will be little to complain about, minus the occasional gut issues we all face. But what are the complaints that tell us a child’s gut needs attention?
Complaints may include:
Bloating after eating
Feeling like they cannot empty completely
Unintentional changes in weight
When a child's gut microbiome is healthy or balanced, the body is able to develop a strong immune system and healthy digestive system.1
Factors that Influence Gut Health in Kids
If you’ve noticed that your child is experiencing gut symptoms, consider whether they’ve been exposed to anything new recently. This could mean a new social setting, environment, animal, or food, but it could also mean identifying whether they’ve had a recent bout of sickness or been under abnormal stress.
Some factors that influence gut health in kids include:
Antibiotics: Antibiotics are designed to kill harmful bacteria when we have an infection. However, they’re generally nonspecific, which means that they kill all types of bacteria they might come in contact with — including the good ones.2
Pets: Kids who grow up in homes with pets are exposed to significantly more allergens than kids without pets. This can influence immunity and gut bacteria diversity.3
Illness: Kids get sick and there’s no way around that. Germs provide opportunities to strengthen the immune system, much of which begins in the gut.
Diet: The types of foods we eat can either help feed the good or bad bacteria in our gut. Good gut bacteria prefer foods that are rich in fiber and micronutrients.4 If your child has a food intolerance or sensitivity, eating things that contain those ingredients can also worsen gut symptoms.
How to Improve Your Child’s Gut Health
If you’re concerned about your child’s gut health, it’s always best to speak to their pediatrician. In the meantime, there are also things you can do at home to help promote gut health for your child.
1. Evaluate their fiber intake
Getting enough fiber — which is only found in plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds — has been shown to significantly improve gut health.5 However, fiber intake can be a delicate balance in kids with sensitive guts.
The recommended daily fiber needs for kids are as follows:6
0-23 months: 19 grams
2-3 years: 14 grams
4-8 years: 17 grams for females, 20 grams for males
9-13 years: 22 grams for females; 23 grams for males
14-18 years: 25 grams for females; 31 grams for males
2. Add prebiotics and probiotics
Probiotics are food for good gut bacteria, and prebiotics are essentially food for probiotics.7 Natural sources of probiotics include tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and yogurt with live active cultures. Prebiotics can be found in certain fibrous plant foods, like garlic, onions, bananas, leeks, asparagus, apples, barley, oats, and flax seeds. There are also a wide variety of prebiotic and probiotic supplements made just for kids.
3. Reduce unhealthy stressors
It’s common for stress to lead to digestive health changes.8 If you think your child has been experiencing more stress than usual, talk to them about it and come up with ideas to help alleviate it. This could be helping them manage a social situation, engaging them in more activities they enjoy, and carving out space for quiet and relaxation.
4. Stay hydrated
Hydration is key for overall health, as well as promoting normal bowel movements and digestive function.9 Plain water is the best choice, which helps support the health of the intestinal lining as well as good gut bacteria.
5. Reduce ultra-processed foods
Diets that are high in fat, ultra-processed snacks, added sugar, and refined grains, tend to be lower in fiber. Take a look at your child’s regular eating pattern and identify where less healthy foods could be replaced with more nutrient-dense ones that are preferable for the gut.
Much of your child’s overall health depends on the health of their gut. Being aware of digestive changes to look for, and incorporating beneficial habits and foods into your child’s lifestyle, are the best ways to keep their gut healthy and happy.
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U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
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