Home > Blog > The importance of prebiotics in the first 1,000 days for gut health and immunity

The importance of prebiotics in the first 1,000 days for gut health and immunity

The first 1,000 days (from conception to age two) are widely accepted to be the most significant period in a child’s development²⁻³. During this formative time, a child’s organs and body systems grow rapidly, and are highly responsive to nutritional influence⁴. Therefore, this period offers a critical window to influence long-term health.

Building immunity from the start

The gut and immune system develop rapidly throughout the first 1,000 days, as babies move from a protected environment to one where they are exposed to lots of immune challenges.

Nutrition plays a significant role in influencing the gut microbiota, shaping the development of both the gut and the immune system⁵. From birth, microbes in the gut perform essential duties⁶:

  • The digestion and metabolism of food
  • The production of neurotransmitters that affect behaviour and cognitive function. The gut microbiota exerts influence over anxiety, mood, sociability and cognition
  • The development and activation of the immune system. The gut is the centre of the immune system — 70–80% of the body’s immune cells are in the gut⁷.

Supporting the maturation, diversity and condition of the gut microbiota through optimal nutrition in the first 1,000 days is fundamental for the development of a healthy immune system⁸`⁹, protecting against harmful bacteria, reducing risk of disease, and safeguarding future health⁹.

Prebiotic power

Breastmilk is the best form of nutrition for babies, containing all of the nutrients required to support a baby’s healthy growth and development in the first six months (see Figure 1.¹⁰⁻¹¹).

In early infancy, nutrition greatly influences the composition of the gut microbiota, and in turn, the emerging immune system⁵`¹²⁻¹³.

The composition of breastmilk is complex; it helps to strengthen baby’s developing immune system by providing protective bioactive elements such as prebiotic oligosaccharides, live bacteria and metabolites¹⁴⁻¹⁵. These prebiotic oligosaccharides help to positively shape the infant’s gut microbiota, promoting the growth of beneficial or ‘friendly’ bacteria (e.g: bifidobacteria and lactobacilli)⁸`¹⁶.

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates. They travel to the gut intact and are fermented by the friendly bacteria that reside there¹⁷. Postbiotics are produced by this natural fermentation process in the gut, including short chain fatty acids (SCFAs)¹⁸, which help to maintain the gut barrier and have been shown to influence immune function⁵.

Supporting immunity from the start

Immunity-boosting, naturally occurring prebiotics in breastmilk are just one of the many incredible ways in which breastmilk offers infants the very best start in life. In early infancy, babies are dependent on milk as the sole form of nutrition, and it is important that all nutritional needs are met, which is why the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life¹⁹.

Nutricia Early Life Nutrition is at the forefront of breastmilk research, committed to increasing the understanding of its unique composition, power and influence on early life development. Because of this pioneering research, babies who are combination fed, or who receive formula exclusively, can continue to benefit from innovations such as prebiotics to promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiota.



Our careline

Our free healthcare professional helpline is open from 8am to 8pm, Monday to Friday. Just phone 0800 996 1234 for expert advice on infant feeding and nutrition, including common infant feeding problems such as cows’ milk allergy, colic, constipation and reflux.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Breastfeeding is best for babies. Infant formula is suitable from birth when babies are not breastfed. Follow-on milk is only for babies over 6 months, as part of a mixed diet and should not be used as a breastmilk substitute before 6 months. We advise that all formula milks including the decision to start weaning should be made on the advice of a doctor, midwife, health visitor, public health nurse, dietitian, pharmacist or other professional responsible for maternal and child care. Foods for special medical purposes should only be used under medical supervision. May be suitable for use as the sole source of nutrition for infants from birth, and/or as part of a balanced diet from 6–12 months. Refer to label for details.

  1. Patel R, Denning PW. Therapeutic use of prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics to prevent necrotizing enterocolitis. what is the current evidence? Clin Perinatol 2013; 40: 11–25.
  2. Infant and Toddler Forum. Early nutrition for later health: time to act earlier. 2014. Available at: https://www.infantandtoddlerforum.org/media/upload/pdf-downloads/ITF_A4_Early_Nutrition_Report_Nov_2014.pdf
  3. 1,000 days. Why 1,000 days? Available at: www.thousanddays.org
  4. Langley-Evans SC. Nutrition in early life and the programming of adult disease: a review. J Hum Nutr Diet 2015; 28(1): 1–14.
  5. Wopereis H, Oozeer R, Knipping K et al. The first thousand days — intestinal microbiology of early life: establishing a symbiosis. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 2014; 25(5): 428–438.
  6. Yang I, Corwin EJ, Brennan PA et al. The infant microbiome: implications for infant health and neurocognitive development. Nurs Res 2016; 65(1): 76–88.
  7. Vighi G, Marcucci F, Sensi L et al. Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clin Exp Immunol 2008; 153(1): 3–6.
  8. Shamir R, van Elburg R, Knol J et al. Gut health in early life: significance of the gut microbiota and nutrition for development and future health. Wiley, Chichester 2015.
  9. Willemsen LE, Koetsier MA, van Deventer SJ et al. Short chain fatty acids stimulate epithelial mucin 2 expression through differential effects on prostaglandin E1 and E2 production by intestinal myofibroblasts. Gut 2003; 52(10): 1442–1447.
  10. Boehm G, Stahl B. Oligosaccharides from milk. J Nutr 2007; 137: 8475–8495.
  11. Public Health England. McCance & Widdowson’s The composition of foods. 7th ed. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2015.
  12. Scholtens PA, Oozeer R, Martin R et al. The early settlers: intestinal microbiology in early life. Annu Rev Food Sci Technol 2012; 3: 425–447.
  13. Parfrey LW, Knight R. Spatial and temporal variability of the human microbiota. Clin Microbiol Infect 2012; 18(4): 8–11.
  14. Hanson LÅ, Korotkova M, Telemo E. Breast-feeding, infant formulas, and the immune system. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2003; 90(6): 59- 63.
  15. Chirico G, Marzollo R, Cortinovis S et al. Antiinfective properties of human milk. J Nutr 2008; 138(9): 1801S-1806S.
  16. Oozeer R, van Limpt K, Ludwig T et al. Intestinal microbiology in early life: specific prebiotics can have similar functionalities as human-milk oligosaccharides. Am J Clin Nutr 2013; 98(2): 561S-571S.
  17. Moro G, Minoli I, Mosca M et al. Dosage-related bifidogenic effects of galacto- and fructooligosaccharides in formula-fed term infants. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr 2002; 34(3): 291–295.
  18. Tsilingiri K, Rescigno M. Postbiotics: what else? Benef Microbes 2012; 4(1): 101–107.
  19. Horta BL, Victoria CG. Long-term effects of breastfeeding: a systematic review. World Health Organization 2013