Children’s Behavior and the Gut Microbiome: Is Your Child’s Diet Affecting Their Behavior?

8 pictures of children showing different moodsOver the last few decades, we’ve seen a lot of research uncover how much the microbiome affects every aspect of our health — mood and behavior included. If your child is showing signs of behavioral problems, their diet and gut health may be to blame. 

Recent research is showing that diet correlates to change in mood, behavior, and even personality traits. While often articles and studies focus on adults, the child microbiome is an important area that is often overlooked. 

We wanted to share some of the research on children and how their health (specifically in relation to behavior) is affected by their gut microbes. 

In this article we will cover:

  • How the Infant and Child Microbiome is Shaped
  • Symptoms of Leaky Gut in Children
  • The Correlation Between Children’s Behavior and Diet
  • How to Improve Your Child’s Diet

How the Infant and Child Microbiome is Shaped

From the time a baby is born, the microbial world inside their tummy begins to grow. Studies show a vast difference between the microbiomes of babies born vaginally and c-section. 

Babies that are born vaginally are exposed to the microbiome of their mother’s vaginal canal. 

Meanwhile, babies born via c-section aren’t and therefore have a more sterile gut. 

From that point on, everything around them is part of shaping their microbiome. Breast vs bottle-fed babies is another strong area of study. 

Doctors often say the breast is best and this is because a mother’s nipple also has a microbiome for babies to be exposed to. Breast milk changes based on the baby’s saliva to help nurture them for optimal health. 

As babies grow into children, they start interacting with more people, animals, and things and this helps the diversity in their guts to grow as well. All of these different things boost a child’s immune system and help their brain to develop. 

There have even been studies showing that children who live in the city tend to have less diversity than children who live in the country since there is more exposure to different pollens and microbes. 

Letting kids get a little dirty without fear of germs is actually really good for them, too. 

However, sometimes situations are unavoidable where your children don’t have the same opportunities to have a robust microbial community. So knowing what to look out for to make sure your child has a healthy gut is extremely important.

Symptoms of Leaky Gut in Children

Leaky gut is a phenomenon where your intestinal barrier becomes compromised for one reason or another. When the barrier is compromised it allows the bacteria within your gut to escape causing an immune response to be ignited. 

If the gut barrier isn’t repaired, this process repeats causing a constant state of inflammation which has been linked to allergies, autoimmune disorders, and other diseases

Leaky gut can present in different ways for different people, and generally, when you see information about leaky gut it’s targeted towards adults — which isn’t very helpful for the parent trying to help their child. So let’s take a look at what leaky gut will look like in a kid.

Signs and/or symptoms of leaky gut can include:

  • Skin conditions
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Digestive disturbances (bloating, diarrhea, constipation, etc.)
  • Weak immune system
  • Asthma/allergies
  • Food intolerance/sensitivities
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Brain fog
  • Frequent headaches
  • Poor cognitive function (inability to focus or remember things)
  • Behavioral issues (ADHD, autism, etc.)

This list sort of seems like a chicken and egg debate since they both work hand in hand. However, the health of a child’s microbiome does seem to be what ignites everything else.


The Correlation Between Children’s Behavior and Diet

What we eat affects everything in our bodies, our brain is no different. The gut has been dubbed the “second brain” for good reason. Our gut microbes cross-talk with our brain to help it make decisions and perform different tasks. 

That’s why what foods we eat are important for optimal brain function. This is the same for our little ones. 

Diets high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and preservatives feed the ‘bad’ bacteria within our guts. This causes inflammation, leaky gut, and disease. Kids like sugar and these bacteria actually make them crave it more.

Diets that provide healthy foods that are full of fiber and other nutrients help to feed our good bacteria. This helps them to create more good bacteria and repair our bodies in the meantime. 

In relation to behavior, several studies have shown how important this diversity is for children’s development.

  1. One study found that children with lower levels of Prevotella species at 1 year old had a higher risk of developing behavioral issues around age 2 — specifically with internalizing issues.
  2. Another study found that children with lower levels of Bacteroides fragilis were more aggressive, anxious, emotionally reactive, and impulsive than their peers. These children were also more likely to be at socioeconomic risk which is an important factor for schools to be aware of. 
  3. Another study showed that children’s stress levels and ability to deal with stressful situations were directly correlated with the balance of their gut microbes.

All of these studies show just how important your child’s microbiome health is to their behavior. So how exactly do you improve their microbial balance to help with children’s behavior? 

How to Improve Your Child’s Diet and Microbiome

Broccoli with two plastic dinosaurs next to it.The main way to support your child’s microbiome is through their diet. While there are many things that can affect their gut, the biggest one that seems to be an issue in children specifically is their diet. (Check out other ways to improve their microbiomes in this article.)

So here are the things to keep in mind when setting up meals for your kiddos (especially those with potential behavioral issues):

  1. Aim for a variety of colors.
    The more colorful your child’s plate is, the more nutrients they’re getting. Tell your little ones that they’re eating the rainbow and your teens that it’s “instagramable” with all the fun colors.
  2. Limit the not-so-good foods that are full of sugar, unhealthy fats, preservatives, and sodium.
    Keep them in hard-to-reach places and use them as positive reinforcement.
  3. Get some food from every food group in each meal and for snacks.
    Try to make it a game with your kid by getting them a food chart that they can place foods onto when they eat them to fill their plate!
  4. Try to add new foods each week to see if they get new favorites.
    If you’re looking for some inspiration check out our recipes in our blog there are a few family-friendly ones linked in this article too.

In addition to diet, make sure your kids are on a routine sleep schedule and getting exercise. These two things are huge influencers on our gut health, mood, and behavior. 

Eating healthy is hard, to begin with, let alone with a child that is a little more difficult to control. All hope isn’t lost though, and there are many resources to help you get your kids eating healthy and on a better behavioral path. 

If you’ve had unruly kids in the past, what are some ways you’ve found to help them behave a little better? Let us know in the comments, it could help another mom or dad!


Gut Health for Kids: 6 Ways to Support Your Child’s Microbiome