Becoming a parent is one of life's most transformative experiences. With the anticipation and joy of pregnancy come a long list of decisions, uncertainties, and for many, a sense of anxiety. From birth plans and breastfeeding to parenting advice and medical interventions, new parents have a lot on their plates!
In this blog post, Tiny Health’s own Kimberley Sukhum, Science Director and busy mom of two, shares about her journey into parenthood—how we plan for the best, make tradeoffs for the sake of our child’s health, and how things often don’t go as planned. Most parents don’t begin their journey equipped with a deep awareness of infant microbiome data like Kim did. But through her story, we’ll see how Kim’s experience led her to bring deep insights into baby’s microbiome to parents everywhere.
Let’s dive into her story!
Meet Kimberley Sukhum, Tiny Health’s Science Director
I’m Kim, Tiny Health’s Science Director. I lead our team of microbiologists and data scientists. I joined the team here in 2021, about 9 months after giving birth to my first child, my daughter Sophie. This summer, I had my son Henry, and life as a mom of two is definitely a game-changer! When I’m not at work, you can usually find me checking out all the local parks or playing video games with my husband.
Before coming to Tiny Health, I got my PhD in Evolution, Ecology, and Population Biology from Washington University in St. Louis and was a faculty member of the Immunology and Pathology department. I was working with the clinical microbiology lab researching how pathogens impact our health, with a focus on the gut microbiome, and a lot of research on how antibiotics impact the gut.
Hitting roadblocks during the birth of her daughter
When I got pregnant with my first baby Sophie, I was so excited to go through all the milestones. I was reading all the books. I’m very detail oriented and a planner. So of course I had my birth plan ready early—we’ll go to the hospital, vaginal birth, breastfeeding, thinking we’ll just check them all off.
My pregnancy was relatively uncomplicated. Towards the end I did end up with preeclampsia, which was a little scary. The surprising part for me was when I actually got to the hospital… things started falling apart.
I had a long labor that wasn’t progressing well, baby wasn’t responding well to induction. My doctors pulled out all the tricks they knew to keep things going, but nothing’s scarier than a roomful of doctors rushing in at 2am in the morning because you shifted position and baby’s heart rate responded, so we decided to go forward with an emergency c-section.
I was so anxious. First, because surgery is nerve racking, but also because I knew the consequences a C-section can have on baby’s future health. Things were out of my control, but of course, I was going to do everything I could to ensure Sophie was healthy.
Navigating ear infections and round after round of antibiotics
While Sophie was generally a cheery, adorably little baby, she got sick a lot. And with each bug she ended up having a bunch of ear infections and a lot of antibiotics—four rounds before she was six months old. Each round of antibiotics was painful. Both convincing her to take them and knowing they were killing off all those good bacteria I was trying to get in her gut.
My research had really focused on antibiotics and how damaging they could be to the gut. I’d been in the microbiome field for a while and knew how disturbances in the gut can have an impact on lifelong health, increasing the risk of eczema, allergies, and then asthma and other conditions later in life.
And this is a very little girl getting round after round of oral antibiotics. It was necessary. She was in pain and we couldn’t not give them to her. But I wondered “How bad is this? I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure she’s okay, but how do I actually know things are getting better?”
Sophie started daycare when I went back to work. This was in 2020, during the pandemic. Which, talk about anxiety as a parent—not being able to stop infections from happening. Whenever she’d get a cold that was passed around, a couple weeks later she’d get another ear infection.
Fortunately, I was able to breastfeed Sophie from the beginning. Breastfeeding was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but we managed to get through it. It felt like everything I’d read just made it seem like this easy, natural process. But I remember breaking down in the middle of the night because my hungry baby didn’t seem to be getting enough milk and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me that she was so hungry all the time.
Going back to work was a difficult reality, also. My breastmilk supply really took a hit because it’s really hard breaking up your work day enough to pump. It was worth all the hard work, though, knowing I was giving her a lot of good bacteria and good HMOs.
The birth of the Baby Gut Health Test
Some time after Sophie was born, Cheryl reached out to me and told me about Tiny Health. I knew how important the science was and that there was nothing like this on the market. It had such potential for research and helping kids that it completely stood out to me.
You want your baby to be the healthiest, have the best opportunities and best in life that you can set them up for. And there is a lot of anxiety around that early on. “Am I doing this right? Making the right choices?”
With my daughter Sophie, I knew that the antibiotics for her ear infections had tradeoffs. We wanted to set her up for the best health, but you don’t know the long-term consequences of medication or if the steps you’re taking have actually been helping. This brought a lot of anxiety and questioning into parenting where there’s already a ton of worry. And at that time there was no test out there for baby gut health that could give you actual data to work from.
I kept talking with Cheryl and found that our values and ideas for the future aligned really nicely, so I joined in to help make a gut test for babies a reality. Within two months, we had our Baby Gut Health Test and I could finally check in with Sophie’s gut health.
Seeing exactly what Sophie needed
Sophie’s first gut test was generally a relief. Her results did show she was low on Bifidobacterium, which we would want to see dominating in a baby gut. We had just stopped breastfeeding and she was on formula, but her gut did have some of the beneficial bacteria you’d expect to see from mom, despite being born via C-section. And I was really relieved to see she wasn’t flagged for atopic conditions at that time.
Our small team at Tiny Health was in the process of developing our list of recommended baby probiotics, so I gave Sophie one of them that we still recommend to parents today. With her gut test we were able to see exactly what strains she needed, which was really helpful in choosing the right probiotic.
I also discovered prebiotics, which I hadn't been aware of before. We started to see improvements in her gut. Bifidobacterium were coming back in at the same time Sophie got her ear tubes in, and we were stepping off the antibiotics and finally moving towards healing.
Preparing for baby number two
For my second pregnancy, it was a relief to know Tiny Health had my back. Early on in my second pregnancy, I took a pregnancy gut test. I wanted to see if there were markers for gestational diabetes or for preeclampsia, since I’d had that during my first pregnancy. Being able to know early on would give me the chance to course correct.
My results were reassuring—I didn’t have many of the markers indicating elevated microbiome risks this time around. During the pregnancy, I took one of the recommended prenatal probiotics. At that point, I was having such weird cravings it was kind of nice just to have my action plan for guidance. I could sprinkle in some of this or that, toss some polyphenol foods in there, or get a little more diverse fiber. I never made a full campaign out of it or dietary plan. I just did what I could to increase diversity in my gut.
This time around I really wanted to have a VBAC (vaginal birth after c-section). Again I had a long labor, which is actually potentially good for seeding the baby’s gut microbiome, although it didn’t feel great in the moment.
The doctors were trying to be very realistic with me that this might not happen. But we pushed through and Henry was born via vaginal birth. I’ll be honest, I was super excited to take his 7-day old sample.
The differences in Henry’s microbiome
And sure enough, that seven day sample of Henry's looked awesome. A bunch of good bacteria, no C-section signature. It felt like that instant, awesome success story. Having the VBAC and then getting his test results—it was huge. About 85 percent of the microbes in his gut were transferred from me. That was one of our biggest wins.
In Henry’s results, we saw that his Bifidobacterium was low. There were probiotic recommendations included, but I opted to breastfeed and sample again later, knowing we could always supplement with a probiotic if his second sample was still low. Probiotics can actually crowd out some of the beneficial bacteria in the gut, so not everyone should take one. Sure enough, at 3 months, Henry had a wide diversity of Bifidobacterium, and they're doing all the functions that we want them to.
Since we’re able to test now, I’m no longer sitting around thinking, “Should I start a probiotic? How do I know this will have an impact?” Things feel stable and like I have options. If he has to take antibiotics for an ear infection—some things we can’t stop—at least I feel equipped to be able to handle those kinds of hurdles.
I’m a big information person, so I want to provide information to parents. To help in the constant questioning of early parenthood, to give a few answers, some direction, and a sense of how we can take our baby’s health in our hands and move in the right direction.
Empowering parents with their baby’s gut data
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed Kim’s story, as the differences in her two births are so intertwined with the beginnings of Tiny Health. At Tiny Health, we’re all about empowering parents with data, helping them make informed decisions about their family’s health, and preventing chronic conditions related to the microbiome.
If you’d like to prepare for a healthy pregnancy, check in your baby’s microbiome development, or address symptoms or concerns to set your child up for the best lifelong health, Tiny Health would love to walk alongside you with microbiome tests for the whole family.