Researchers from University of North Carolina found that a baby's diet during the first few months of life has a profound influence on the composition, diversity, and stability of the gut microbiome.
These factors, in turn, influence the baby's ability to transition from milk to solid foods and may have long-term health effects.
"We found that babies who are fed only breast milk have microbial communities that seem more ready for the introduction of solid foods," said Andrea Azcarate-Peril, assistant professor in the department of cell biology and physiology and the study's senior author.
"The transition to solids is much more dramatic for the microbiomes of babies that are not exclusively breastfed. We think the microbiomes of non-exclusively breastfed babies could contribute to more stomach aches and colic," she said.
The discovery adds to the growing awareness that the gut microbiome plays a major role in helping us digest food and fight pathogens, among other functions.
For the study, the research team collected stool samples and information about the diets and health of nine babies as they grew from ages 2 weeks to 14 months.
Applying genomic sequencing techniques to the stool samples, the scientists deduced the types and functions of the bacteria in the babies' gut microbiomes.
The analysis found that during the first few months of life there were clear differences between the microbiomes of babies that were exclusively breastfed as compared to those fed both formula and breast milk.
Researchers found differing amounts of about 20 bacterial enzymes in exclusively breastfed babies when compared to exclusively breastfed babies that received solid food.
This indicated that some new bacterial species had entered the scene to help process the new food types.    

In babies fed both formula and breast milk - and then introduced to solid foods - the samples showed about 230 enzymes, indicating a much more dramatic shift in microbial composition.
The microbiomes of exclusively breastfed babies tended to be less diverse and were dominated by Bifidobacterium, a type of bacteria considered beneficial for digestion.
Babies fed a mixture of breast milk and formula had a lower proportion of Bifidobacterium.
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology.

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