The Importance of the Virgin Gut

Peanut getting a poke test done for allergies. One huge red spot is the test spot, the other is for Peanuts.

I didn’t hear about the concept of the virgin gut until Peanut was a few months old. At the time, I dismissed it as a “holier than thou” ideal. By then, Peanut had already had something other than breast milk. Actually, by the time she was a day old, she had already had something other than breast milk.

We transferred with Peanut to the hospital after her accidental home birth. We had trusted our midwife to help us decide whether or not the vitamin K shot would be necessary, but since we didn’t go to the same hospital, our midwives weren’t there. Honestly, they may have recommended it anyway given the length of labor and the position of Peanut during most of it. I’m not sure. Regardless, she was given the vitamin K shot when we transferred to the hospital. I honestly don’t even remember it happening, but (obviously without a medical degree or anything that gives me valid proof) I’m sure that it’s the reason for what happened next.

They tested Peanut’s blood, without my consent I may add, and told me that her blood was “too thick.” They said that I needed to give her Pedialyte to counteract this and that they’d test it again in a few hours. I knew the risks of nipple confusion, so I made sure we wouldn’t do it in a bottle. That’s all I knew to do. I felt totally lost and confused. I felt like they were working against me and my gut told me not to do it, but I did it anyway. Her blood was fine at the next test even with the fact that I’m certain she spit up most of what I gave her in the syringe. This made me wonder if it was even necessary.

So when I was introduced to the concept of the virgin gut, the feelings of betrayal from the hospital staff convincing me to give Pedialyte to my baby were still raw. I felt offended at the idea of my child not having a virgin gut. Like they were trying to say something was wrong with her. Like I had done that thing wrong.

It wasn’t until later that I really looked at the idea of the virgin gut.

There is a reason for the virgin gut, especially within the first few weeks. When a baby is born, their gut is sterile. Babies given supplementation develop different gut flora. Even one bottle changes the flora and, if given in the first week of life, the flora may not ever reach the pH that it would have been otherwise. The pH level of the gut is one of the methods the body uses to fight bad bacteria, then the formula itself often introduces bad bacteria.

Even beyond the first weeks, it’s best to delay introducing anything besides breast milk for the first 6 months, if not longer. Not the first 4-6 months, as baby food labels and possibly even your pediatrician may tell you. Between 4 and 6 months, a baby’s gut will “close.”  The “open” gut of a baby allows larger molecules to pass through the intestine, straight into the blood stream. This is so that the antibodies from the mother’s breast milk are able to get to the baby’s bloodstream straight away, which is a great thing. If formula or other foods are introduced to the baby before it’s fully closed, it becomes a very bad thing. This allows pathogens to get straight to your baby, along with large molecules from the food. What’s the problem with food molecules in the bloodstream? Allergies.

I remember being thoroughly unalarmed by the idea of allergies when Peanut was a baby. We had very few allergies in our family and none were life threatening, so I figured her risk of developing them was pretty low. Then I had a child with a life-threatening food allergy. I kept myself awake at night worrying about someone giving her food without knowing or a label being wrong. I lived in fear of having to use the Epi-pen that we carried with us 24 hours a day and even bigger fear of not having it when we needed it. I still well up at the thought of her allergy and I am beyond grateful that she outgrew it. Now though, I wonder if we would have dealt with it at all if she would have had a virgin gut. May we would have, but I’ll forever wonder if those few little supplements of Pedialyte in the hospital gave us 6 months of hell.

Of course there are situations where a baby just can’t have a virgin gut. A friend of mine almost died during birth and was in a coma for weeks afterwards. During that time, her newborn daughter was obviously given formula. Afterwards, she was able to exclusively breastfeed. Really, an amazing accomplishment. For her daughter though, that formula allowed her to live when her mother couldn’t give her milk. There are many medical reasons for a baby needing something other than their mother’s milk. Even if your baby has been given formula or other food (beyond the first week), the gut can restore itself to the correct pH with exclusive breast milk for a couple of weeks.

So how important is the virgin gut? It depends. Only you can decide if it’s something important to you. If there is a medical necessity for your baby to receive formula or medication, then that can outweigh the risks of a non-virgin gut. Maybe though, if you’re just thinking of supplementing with formula while you go on a date, you can pump instead. Or maybe if you’re already giving your baby formula or other food regularly, you might decide restore your baby’s virgin gut status by going back to breast milk only. Maybe even if there’s not a medical reason, you still aren’t worried about a non-virgin gut.

This, along with all the other things I mention on this blog, are individual choices. I use this space to inform people of the decisions I’ve made. Often it’s because I think I may have made a different decision, or in this case, have made a different decision in the past, without this information. I hope that even if you don’t decide to do the things on this blog that it helps you to make educated decisions. Every one of you will make the decision that’s best for your family and your circumstances, just as I’ve made the decision that’s best for mine. 

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9 thoughts on “The Importance of the Virgin Gut

  1. Ah, thanks for this, I knew that the virgin gut was important, but I’d never heard it called that! My oldest has an anaphylactic peanut allergy that he has not, and will not, grow out of. He was a c/s (8x more likely to have allergies) and I was convinced that my milk wasn’t coming in and encouraged to supplement with formula. Funny, in retrospect, I noticed his ‘reflux’ cleared up around 6 months and this baby (14m) stopped reacting through breastmilk to trace amounts of some foods that don’t agree with him (so about the time their guts ‘sealed’ up). Very very interesting.

  2. Meconium had been thought to be sterile until the team of researchers from the University of Valencia in Spain found bacterial communities in it so developed that they seemed to fall into two categories. Around half of the samples appeared to be dominated by bacteria that produce lactic acid, such as lactobacillus, while the other half mostly contained a family of so-called enteric bacteria, such as Escherichia coli. How is a newborn’s gut sterile if they’re born with meconium inside of them which contains bacterial colonies? It makes no sense.

    As for breastmilk being the cure all, my son could not keep it down. I changed my diet and just couldn’t get lactose free enough for him. He has a very bad dairy allergy and needed to be switched to soy formula. How would this be explained by your virgin gut theory?

    • I’ve only ever read that meconium is sterile. I’ll have to research that further. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

      A dairy allergy is pretty rare, but it is because of what gets through your breast milk. If he has a dairy allergy and has never been given formula, then it would have developed because of the exposure the baby got through the cows milk molecules. Some babies are just extra sensitive to that. If he was given formula and had a sensitivity, he would more likely to develop an allergy than if he was just exposed through your breast milk. That’s part of the idea of the virgin gut theory. Since the gut isn’t sealed yet, children are more likely to develop allergy, even from one bottle.

      When you say he couldn’t keep the milk down, what exactly do you mean? Spitting up can be normal, even in excessive amounts. Pain while spitting up can be a sign of acid reflux, which is what Peanut had. She nursed every 60-90 minutes around the clock because the milk calms reflux immediately, but then as it sits in the stomach makes it worse again. She still gained weight, but she spit up constantly. Twig even spits up a lot. She doesn’t have reflux and often goes 3 hours between nursing sessions, but even when she’s gone that long she often spits up so hard that it goes past my back and onto the floor or so much that we have to change our clothes. She is still gaining, and at a fast rate at that. It’s hard to not see spitting up, especially if it’s a lot, as a sign of something being wrong. Sometimes though, it’s just their little stomaches developing and learning to digest food. Even when a baby does spit up, it is physically impossible to completely empty the stomach beyond I think 70% (sorry, no reference here, it’s something the pediatrician told us), so even when it seems like they must have just spit up everything they ate, they’re still getting quite a bit to eat. Did you see a clear difference when you had dairy as when you didn’t? Did you keep any sort of journal that was able to tie the dairy to the spitting up? Was he gaining weight and generally happy? It’s pretty rare for a baby to react to food through mother’s milk, but since I’m presuming you’ve had an allergy test done, that could definitely have been happening. Especially if he had any formula early on that would have sensitized him to the milk proteins.

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  4. Very informative. My dd is 3months old and I’ve only just recently learned about the virgin gut and waiting til 6 months to introduce foods. My gut feeling told me too not to give her anything except breast milk unless absolutely necessary, which I’m happy to say we’ve been able to stick to it. I’m going to be writing a blog in the next few weeks about baby led weaning, I’d love to link up to your post.

  5. Hi there, my little one was given formula when he was one day old and then when he was about 6 weeks. These few sips, as he never really drank the bottles, caused multiple allergies. He reacted by swelling and throwing up. He is allergic to dairy, wheat and eggs mostly. He is 15 months now and I am really hoping he will outgrow them as I feel like I can never leave him with somebody else as they will never be as careful with his food as I am. If you don`t mind me asking at what age did your little one outgrew her allergy? Thank you.

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  8. What about antibiotics? How do they affect the virgin gut? My LO was give antibiotic syrup and fever medication for 3 days when he was 10 days old. Since then I’ve been concerned about how it affected his gut…Im exclusively breastfeeding and baby is now 5 weeks old. Is there anything I can do to restore his gut flora? Please reply, I really want to stop the constant worrying and calm myself down.

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