As parents, we always want to find more ways we can take care of our kids and teach them the habits that will make them healthy, happy, and successful adults. That’s why it’s important to consider your children’s gut problems. Gut health in children can contribute to how your child feels and experiences the world. It can influence how often they get sick, how they digest food and absorb nutrients, how prone they are to experiencing anxiety or depression, how tired they get, and much more.
Changing simple lifestyle habits in your and your child’s routine can mean big differences in your child’s energy levels, weight management, behavior, and overall health. Read on to discover all of the ways gut health in children can impact their short and long-term well-being.
What is the Gut Microbiome?
The gut microbiome is the trillions of microorganisms that live in your intestinal tract. Research in the last 10 years has shown that these microorganisms (mainly bacteria) live and function in our gut to help us carry out essential bodily functions, like digesting our food, absorbing nutrients, and managing our immune system. If you want to visualize where your immune system is, visualize your gut.
Besides helping us absorb nutrients and digest our food, much research has shown that our gut microbiome contributes to our greater health and experience of well-being. The tiny bacteria in our gut play a key role in managing our metabolism, body weight, brain function, and even mood. Many researchers have discovered that there is a unique connection between our gut and brain and that they communicate with each other through neurotransmitters. Our gut-brain axis communicates on carrying out certain functions of the body and determines how we feel.
There are many different types of bacteria in our gut that aid different processes in our body and make us feel a different way. Many factors go into the composition of our gut microbiome, such as what we eat, how often we exercise, and more.
Why Gut Health is Important in Children?
Gut health is a large contributor to how we physically, mentally, and emotionally experience the world. Thus, as we raise our kids, it’s important to know what affects our gut and how we can promote its optimal health, so we can teach our kids this. That’s because our gut health ultimately determines our overall health.
Good gut health is important in children because shaping a healthy gut with abundant and diverse bacteria early in life will set them up for success later. It will reduce their chances of getting sick and developing illnesses, allergies, and even certain diseases.
By helping them practice regular lifestyle habits that promote great gut health, they will feel less tired, experience fewer digestive issues, maximize their nutrient absorption, and be less prone to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
As our kids become older and start making decisions for themselves, it’s also important that they are equipped with the knowledge to make informed decisions about their health and lifestyle habits that impact their gut health. Even better if they have already developed the right habits.
How Does Children’s Gut Health Differ From Adults
A child’s microbiome is extremely dynamic. It starts to develop in the womb, continues its development at delivery, and matures once the child is outside the womb and continues to grow up.
When your child is young, the amount and diversity of their gut bacteria are less developed. The bacteria in your child’s gut are not as abundant or diverse. So, what they eat and the lifestyle habits they form in the beginning years are important to set them up later in life.
Some studies have even shown that gut health in children is most flexible before the age of four or five. The gut microbiome is harder to change after those first few years, as it’s more well-established. This also means that your child’s microbiome can incur damage that may have long-term effects. So, it’s important to introduce habits and practices that maximize the gut’s diversity and health.
Not only is your child’s microbiota flexible and dynamic, but it has certain characteristics and functions that make them unique to a young child. It’s been observed that a child’s gut microbiome will self-induce inflammation as a way to train the new immune system to unknown environmental influences. The child’s microbiome has different types of bacteria for these types of processes and stages the young body goes through, whereas adults don’t.
Gut Health and Children’s Behavior
Children’s gut problems can be apparent in their behavior. Remember when I mentioned the gut-brain axis, and the connection the two have in delivering our overall health and experience of the world?
The health of our gut can affect how we feel, our mood, and certain mental illnesses or struggles we may experience. It excretes neurotransmitters that affect mood, like dopamine and serotonin. It’s not only our brains that do that! By having a poor gut microbiome, kids can experience or increase their risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. They may be more irritable, less happy, more fearful, and insecure. The state of your child’s microbiome can also lead to extroversion and varying levels of cognitive development.
If your child has a poor diet that’s heavy in processed foods or they take a lot of medications and antibiotics, it can lead to more gut problems in children.
Signs of Poor Gut Health in Toddlers
Luckily, there are lots of ways to tell if your child has gut problems. They are mainly identified through your child’s behavior. Signs of poor gut health in toddlers could include them experiencing digestive problems (e.g. constipation), stomach aches, a hard time staying or falling asleep, poor immunity and getting sick, feeling tired, and mood fluctuations.
Other symptoms may include excessive bloating and gas, skin problems (eczema or psoriasis), food or environmental allergies, reflux, food cravings, and appetite issues.
However, it’s important to discern the unique situation and body composition of your child. Every person is different and will react differently when they have poor gut health. Your child may experience a lot of the symptoms listed above or just a couple.
5 Ways to Improve Gut Health in Children
1. Improve Plant Variety in Your Child’s Diet
In order to maintain a healthy gut, it’s important to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains. The fiber found in these foods is called prebiotics. Prebiotics act as food that feeds your good gut bacteria, so they can continue to multiply. Eating a great variety of produce helps you increase the benefits of having a strong and healthy gut microbiome.
What makes variety in one’s diet so important is the different types of fiber, pigments, nutrients, and antioxidants found in those whole foods. You may have learned in school that there are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. However, there are many more varieties of fiber beyond those broad categories that are unique to the different fruits and vegetables you consume. They all act as unique fuel for the good bacteria to grow and multiply in your gut.
It’s also important to remember that diet makes up 75% of the change you’re able to make in your gut microbiome related to lifestyle.
If you have to take away two things, they are:
- Aim to eat 15-30 plant varieties each week.
- Eat the rainbow.
2. Get Them to Exercise Regularly
Exercising regularly can improve your and your child’s gut health. Exercise can work in concert with diet and independently to change and improve the composition of your gut bacteria.
Some studies show that focusing on high-intensity workouts and workouts with longer duration can impact gut flora diversity and composition the most.
3. Help Your Child Get More Sleep
Children need more sleep than adults. While they are developing and growing, they need the extra energy sleep gives them to develop at a healthy and normal rate. By allowing your child to sleep in, or encouraging them to go to bed early, you’ll also improve their gut microbiome and vice versa. One study found that sleep disruptions correlated with certain types of gut bugs being present. However, much more research needs to be done to explore the link between sleep and the gut microbiome.
Getting less sleep has been linked to more mood fluctuations and an increased level of the hormone, Ghrelin, which makes us feel hungry. By not getting enough sleep, we experience greater digestive problems and are at higher risk for weight gain and experiencing cravings.
By feeding your gut with a variety of healthy foods and engaging in healthy habits, your gut composition will change to help you sleep better as well.
4. Create a Loving and Supportive Environment
To improve your gut health, it’s important to reduce stress and find ways to manage it. Teaching our kids these skills will reap massive benefits to their gut flora.
As parents, creating a loving and supportive environment where they can feel heard and loved is essential for minimizing stress. Teaching them how to communicate and allowing a safe space for them to open up to you can also contribute to lower levels of stress in your kids.
5. Teach Them About the Importance of Maintaining a Healthy Gut
Before you know it, your kids will be gradually making more and more of their own decisions. This includes their lifestyle habits too. In order for them to maintain a healthy gut flora throughout childhood and their adult life, it’s important to teach them about the importance of maintaining gut health, and the practical habits they can adopt.
You can start by being an example of healthy habits. Eat healthy foods around them, and involve them in cooking healthy meals. Take them on walks and hikes to get exercise. Go to bed when you want them to go to bed too. Over time, they will adopt these habits as normal, and be more likely to carry them to adulthood.
Best Foods for Children’s Gut Health
- Fruits: Berries, pineapple, apples, figs, oranges, pears, bananas, peaches, mangoes, grapes, and kiwis.
- Vegetables: Dark leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, garlic, onions, ginger, squash, beets, peppers, and more.
- Healthy Fats: Avocado, extra virgin olive oil, hemp seeds, flax seeds, fatty fish, and nut butter.
- Fermented Foods: Sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, plain yogurt, kefir, tempeh, and miso.
- Whole Grains and Bread: Whole wheat bread, oats, quinoa, brown rice, barley, buckwheat, and millet.
- Beans and Legumes: Pinto beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, kidney beans, black beans, soybeans, navy beans, and peanuts.
15 Recipes To Help Negative Gut Health in Children
This healthy Greek Quinoa Salad is a gluten-free and protein-packed lunch that is filled with chickpeas, English cucumbers, Kalamata olives, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, and parsley. It’s packed with plant variety and it’s easy to make.
The yogurt, berries, chia seeds, spinach, and bananas in this Great Tasting Blueberry Banana Smoothie contribute to a healthier gut microbiome and better digestive system.
The best 15-minute recipe! This easy Chicken Kimchi Stir Fry recipe boasts veggies, lean protein, probiotics, and tons of flavor all in one dish. It’s a great dish for helping gut health in children.
Full of naturally occurring probiotics and beneficial bacteria, homemade sauerkraut is easy to make and only really requires two ingredients!
Make grilled salmon with cilantro, lime, avocado, and tomato salsa. This healthy and flavorful meal is bursting with flavor, color, and texture and is ready in under 20 minutes. It can be grilled, pan-seared, or baked!
These Zucchini Boats are packed with fiber and protein, which are both healthy for the gut! Stuffed with lentils, tomatoes, and fresh herbs, and topped off with a sprinkle of vegan parmesan!
This Vegetarian Kimchi Jigae is sweet, spicy, tangy, and full of flavor. Enjoy this vegan stew with a bowl of rice on the side for a hearty meal. Ready in 30 minutes!
This crock pot vegetable soup with lentils is made with mushrooms, green beans, pinto beans, tomatoes, rosemary, lemon, red chard, and more. It’s packed with a variety of plants and plant-based protein for a gut-healthy and vegan meal.
This Gut-Healthy Thick & Creamy Chocolate Smoothie will be your new go-to. It’s packed with probiotics and hidden veggie nutrition. It’s gluten-free, vegan, and paleo-friendly too! With this super creamy drink, this healthy smoothie recipe will cure your chocolate craving while feeding the good bacteria in your gut!
With healthy vegetables, herbs, and quinoa as a complete protein, this quinoa vegetable soup is packed with nourishing ingredients. Very easy to make for a tasty lunch or light dinner.
These tempeh tacos will make everyone happy – including meat eaters! Lightly seasoned tempeh crumbles are fried until crispy, then layered into tortillas with homemade avocado crema and quick pickled vegetables. They’re ready in just 40 minutes!
Do you have a picky eater in the house? Are you worried about your children’s gut problems? Then you should give these vegan cocoa puffs a try. They are made from chickpeas so they are full of fiber and healthy for your gut too. You only need a few ingredients and 20 minutes to make these chickpeas.
Delicious and easy homemade yogurt using this fail-proof Instant Pot method. It’s creamier and tastier than store-bought yogurt, and helps you save money! Perfect for helping gut health in children. Sprinkle some granola and fresh fruit on it to make it tastier.
This Salted Caramel Chia and Flax Seed Pudding is full of flavor and nutrients. Full of superfood fiber from the chia seeds, flax seeds, and dates, it going to be an essential dessert to feed your gut.
This easy-to-make Creamy Coconut Lentil Curry is packed with prebiotic and probiotic ingredients. The perfect option for a gut-healthy meal, this will be a delicious, warming, satisfying stew for you and your kids!
The gut plays an important role in how we feel and experience the world around us. It can indicate to us how healthy we are through the symptoms and behaviors we exhibit. It’s a complex system, but it’s very flexible and adaptive, especially the gut health in children. Our gut flora and the gut-brain axis are powerful systems within us.
The gut microbiome can be so easily influenced by the smallest changes we make in our daily lifestyle habits and routines. Simply eating more dark leafy greens, exercising more, or minimizing stress can change the composition of the bacteria inside of us, and change how we feel. When our gut can be so heavily changed by our lifestyle choices, that’s a powerful lesson we want to teach our kids. It educates our kids on what habits to adopt and how to normalize healthy behavior for their long-term benefit. It gives them the tools to be successful and healthy adults.
Plus, it helps us as parents stay healthier for our kids as well. Who wouldn’t want that!? Despite all of the information out there on gut health, I recommend taking one or two tips from this article to start implementing this week. It’s not about being a perfect parent, but it’s all about making progress toward being healthier and improving your children’s gut problems.
Thanks for exploring this topic with me
About The Author
Audrey Sommer is a recipe developer, food photographer, and digital marketer. She is the creator and food blogger of Audreythena Food Goddess. Audrey loves creating healthy recipes and teaching others about how they can easily incorporate healthy eating and living into their daily lives. You can follow her on Instagram at @audreythena_foodgoddess.