5 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Gut Health

Every apple slice, chicken nugget, and spoonful of peanut butter that your child eats gets broken down into absorbable fuel and vital nutrients by his or her digestive system. A healthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract is essential for helping kids thrive. But sometimes, this amazing system needs a little TLC. Whether you’re concerned about constipation, diarrhea, tummy aches, or just want to bolster your child’s digestive health to promote optimal overall health, these strategies can help:

1. Feed the good bugs. Here’s a fun fact for science fans: The human intestines are home to more than 100 trillion organisms mainly bacteria. These “bugs” protect against infection, help digest food, bolster immunity, and may even protect against obesity, type 2 diabetes, and irritable bowel disease. Fiber in grains, fruits, and vegetables helps keep gut bacteria healthy—especially fiber types found in whole grains (like whole wheat bread and brown rice), bananas, and berries. Getting plenty of fiber from food (kids need up to about 25 grams of fiber daily) can also help reduce the odds for constipation, a common childhood problem.

2. Add more beneficial bacteria to the mix. Fermented foods that contain live, active bacteria cultures—like yogurt, kefir, and aged cheese—can add more good bugs to your child’s gastrointestinal tract. So can nondairy fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and nondairy yogurt.If your child is lactose intolerant, he or she may still be able to enjoy calcium-rich yogurt without discomfort. Beneficial bacteria in yogurt break down some lactose, a milk sugar that his or her body cannot fully digest on its own.

3. Cut back on processed and artificially sweetened foods. A diet packed with chips, fast food, packaged cookies, and processed meat can contribute to constipation—and may prevent beneficial gut bugs from thriving. Diet drinks and artificial sweeteners can also mess with good bacteria, research shows.

4. Say ‘no thanks’ to nonessential antibiotics. Antibiotics can knock out a raging ear infection and cure strep throat, but they can kill off beneficial gut bacteria at the same time. Use these drugs only when needed, not for viral infections like colds, flu, and many ear and sinus infections.

5. Know when to see the doctor. Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician if he or she has constipation for more than a few days or any ongoing digestion-related symptoms that concern you, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, bloating or gas. The pediatrician may refer your child to a pediatric gastroenterologist, a digestive-disease expert who can diagnose and treat a wide variety of gastrointestinal health concerns in children and teens.