Many of the most common medical conditions affecting infants have some connection to the digestive system. Over the next several articles I will discuss many of these common medical conditions individually and provide treatment recommendations for them. However, because the digestive system plays such a crucial role with many of these conditions I feel it is very important to start this series with an investigation into the digestive system of an infant.
Babies have very delicate digestive systems. The tissues and organs of the digestive system are no different than any other tissue in the body. In utero, in infancy, and even during childhood these tissues and organs are immature and need time to develop to their full integrity. This means that during the early stages of life it is crucial to support and nurture the digestive system so that it develops to its full potential.
The stomach and intestines grow rapidly in size during the first 6–12 months of life. As the infant increases nutrient consumption the digestive tract expands to accommodate.
This expansion of capacity is one of the main reasons infants become able to sleep for longer stretches as they mature. The digestive system not only increases in size but also in integrity during the first 6–12 months of life. This means that the cells that make up the lining of the intestines form tighter and tighter bonds with each other. This is a very important concept because a mature digestive tract only allows nutrients it desires to be absorbed and incorporated into the body. The remaining unwanted nutrients/wastes continue down the intestinal tract to become stool.
If the digestive tract is somehow damaged during the first 6–12 months of life from infection, food allergies, physical trauma, or something else it may not mature optimally. A damaged digestive system can cause any number of symptoms including constipation, diarrhea, colic, skin conditions, poor growth rate, asthma, allergies, thrush, and diaper rash.
Think of the digestive system in a similar way you may think of your skin. Both are barriers to the outside world and prevent our insides from being harmed. The digestive tract prevents unwanted nutrients from being absorbed into the body as it selects the nutrients it wants to incorporate into the body.
The best things you can do for your infant’s digestive tract is avoid exposure to food allergies and irritants that may damage the cells of the intestines. Most health experts agree that the digestive tract of an infant functions best during the first six months of life on a diet containing only breast milk. Solid foods introduction is typically recommended to start after six months.
However, every infant is different and not every infant can tolerate or has access to being fed exclusively by breast milk. In these situations, it is typically best to work with your naturopathic physician, pediatrician, and/or nutritionist to develop a nutritional plan for your infant. This plan should focus on recognizing and avoiding exposure to nutrients that irritate the digestive tract.
Over the next several articles I will discuss many of the most common health concerns that affect infants, toddlers, and children. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about naturopathic healthcare please check out my website at www.drbrentbarlownd.com or contact my office at 250.448.5610.
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