What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacteria) that live in the gut and provide some benefits, such as helping to digest food and protect against some germs. You might hear them called "good bacteria." They're found in some foods and also in dietary supplements.
Although probiotics are known to have benefits for adults, few studies have looked at their effects on children and infants.
There are two main types of probiotics available as supplements or naturally in certain foods:
Lactobacillus. This type of probiotic is found in some brands of yogurt, and also in fermented foods. They may be helpful for people who have trouble digesting lactose as well as for the occasional bout of diarrhea.
Bifidobacterium. A yeast known as Saccharomyces boulardii falls under this category. Some people use it as an alternative treatment for digestive problems.
What are probiotic supplements?
Probiotic supplements are capsules, powders, or liquids that contain these good bacteria. They help prevent infections in part by entering the digestive tract and keeping harmful microorganisms from thriving in the same space. Supplements often have a variety of live microorganisms as opposed to just one type or strain.
The FDA doesn't regulate dietary supplements, so you can't always be sure what you're getting. There are no official recommendations for doses or the length of time to take them.
Don't give your child or baby probiotic supplements without checking with their doctor.
Probiotics vs. prebiotics
While the two names sound alike, they're quite different. Prebiotics are foods (usually high-fiber ones) that promote the growth of probiotic bacteria in your digestive tract.
Examples of prebiotics include:
- Apple skin
- Chicory root
- Whole-grain foods
- Dandelion greens
Human breast milk also contains prebiotics.
Probiotics in Formula
Baby formula doesn't provide the probiotics that natural breast milk does. Because of this, some manufacturers fortify infant formulas with probiotics
But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn't recommend the use of probiotics for children and babies, because studies so far have found no evidence that they have health benefits. It's also not clear whether they might cause side effects.
Benefits of Probiotics for Children
Some research has found that probiotics help prevent or ease diarrhea in children, especially when it's caused by antibiotics. But most studies show that probiotics aren't effective for diarrhea treatment and prevention. Probiotics might also help relieve symptoms of colic in infants, though studies have had mixed results.
There's no scientific evidence that probiotics can help with other childhood conditions. We need much more research, but conditions that researchers have looked at include:
Necrotizing enterocolitis. Preterm infants are at a high risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious disease of the digestive tract. This is because preterm babies don't have a fully developed digestive system that includes digestive microorganisms. Some scientists think probiotic supplements could help preterm or low-birth weight infants develop these vital microorganisms. But so far, there's no evidence this is true.
Eczema. Some studies have shown that taking probiotic supplements during pregnancy might help reduce the risk that your child will have eczema, if you have a family history of it. But it hasn't been found to affect the risk of other conditions like food allergies.
Probiotics for Children: Side Effects
Probiotics are generally considered safe for children because they use microbes already found in the body. But not many studies have been done on the overall safety of probiotics.
Certain groups should be extra careful about probiotics:
- Premature babies
- Very sick infants
- Children with weakened immune systems
- Children who have been hospitalized
Which Foods Contain Probiotics?
In general, pediatricians recommend that children get probiotics from foods instead of through over-the-counter supplements. Foods that have probiotics include:
- Kefir, a fermented milk drink
- Yogurt, which is thicker than kefir
- Kombucha, a low-calorie fermented drink made with black tea
- Sauerkraut, a German side dish featuring fermented cabbage
- Kimchi, a Korean side dish that can be spicy
- Tempeh, a hearty fermented soy product that can be used in a stir-fry
- Sourdough bread
Some of these foods may be a treat for children, such as having a cup of yogurt sweetened with fresh fruit or a teaspoon of honey. Kefir is often sold in kid-friendly flavors like mango, blueberry, and strawberry.
Yogurt with probiotics should have at least 100 million cultures per gram before being labeled as having live and active cultures. The label may also indicate the specific probiotics in the yogurt.
Fermented foods (like sauerkraut and kimchi) usually contain probiotics. The downside is that some children may find the taste and smell too strong. Also, not all fermented foods have probiotics. Some products go through processes, like canning, that eliminate probiotics.
Before Giving Supplements to Your Kids ...
Talk to your doctor before giving any sort of supplements to your child, including probiotics. Dietary supplements aren't regulated by the FDA, so there are no official recommendations for doses or the length of time to take them.
Also check with your doctor before changing your child's diet to include more probiotic-rich foods.
Probiotics may interfere with certain medications, especially for kids going through chemotherapy or who have recently had surgeries.
If you child is taking antibiotics, probiotics may help with side effects, such as digestion problems.
If your child has been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, you may want to talk with your doctor about adding bifidobacterium supplements.