What to Know About Probiotics in Baby Formulas

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 20, 2022
4 min read

It’s becoming more common for probiotics to be added to infant formulas to try and promote healthy growth and development. As a new parent, though, you may be wondering what probiotics are or whether you should give your child formulas containing them. 

Your baby was born with a sterile gut. Once they’re born, good bacteria is naturally introduced to their body by breastmilk and formula, and later on by food and drink. This helps your baby digest food, extract nutrients from food, develop a healthy immune system, and more.

Probiotics occur in your baby’s body naturally. The term probiotics refers to live bacteria and yeasts that are good for the human body. Oftentimes, bacteria is cast in a negative light, but your child’s body contains both harmful and helpful bacteria. Probiotics help their body function correctly and stay healthy by, among other things, fighting harmful bacteria when too much is present.

Probiotics are unique from other organisms in the body due to the following characteristics:

  • It can exist isolated from a human.
  • It can survive in your intestine after being eaten.
  • It has been scientifically proven to benefit you.
  • It is safe to consume.

Probiotics are most commonly found in the gut, especially the large intestine, but the mouth, vagina, urinary tract, skin, and lungs are also able to host probiotics.

Essentially, the main function of probiotics in your baby’s body is to keep a healthy balance. When they get sick, the amount of bad bacteria they host increases until the good bacteria fights it off and restores balance. Other functions of probiotics include:

  • Helping your baby digest food
  • Preventing harmful bacteria from getting out of control
  • Producing vitamins
  • Keeping bad bacteria that your child has consumed from getting into their blood by supporting the cells that line their gut
  • Breaking down and absorbing medications

Some formulas are strengthened with probiotics to mimic the high levels of live bacteria found in breastmilk. If you are formula-feeding your child, you might be concerned with how to get probiotics into your baby’s body to help balance the bacteria in their intestines, fight infections, and reduce inflammation.

In fact, research shows that the right probiotics could prevent or treat infectious diarrhea and eczema, reduce the risk of food-related allergies and asthma, prevent urinary tract infections, and relieve the symptoms of colic.

Formula isn’t your only option if you’d like to get more probiotics into your baby’s system, even if they’re breastfed. There are probiotic drops and powders that can supplement formula or breastmilk.

Keep in mind that research on probiotics for infants is ongoing. The evidence of positive effects of probiotics is limited, and it seems that benefits are only present while the probiotics are being consumed. Once your child stops taking the formula or other supplement, bacteria levels will return to normal.  

This is significant because, in breastfed babies, probiotics have a lasting positive impact. Although there is no conclusive evidence that probiotic supplements are harmful for babies in moderation, you should speak with your child’s healthcare provider before adding probiotics into their diet.

Although breastfeeding infants is ideal from an overall health perspective, it’s not possible for every baby to be breastfed for the recommended amount of time or at all. 

The many benefits of breastmilk include its extreme nutrition when it comes to probiotics and all the benefits that come along with an adequate amount of probiotics in the body.

Breastmilk varies in constitution. Its dynamic nature is one of the reasons it’s so good for newborns. As babies grow, get sick, etc., their mother’s breastmilk changes to meet these needs. Breastmilk can contain a wide variety of prebiotics and probiotics to best nurture the child drinking it.

To match this, probiotics are added to some formulas. Making formula that closely mimics breastmilk is in the best interest for formula-fed infants, but more research and progress must be completed to confirm that formulas enriched with probiotics are safe and provide long-lasting benefits to your child.

There are a wide variety of types of probiotics that could benefit your baby. Each subset of the general group named “probiotics” has unique benefits, and some are better suited for young children. The best probiotics for infants include:

Don’t get prebiotics confused with probiotics – they sound similar but serve different purposes. Prebiotics pave the way for probiotics. Prebiotics are fiber compounds that move through the upper digestive tract but are not digested. Instead, they’re a type of food source for the good bacteria to promote growth and multiplication. Prebiotics are important and stimulate activity among probiotics, Breastmilk naturally contains both prebiotics and probiotics, while prebiotics are not as common in formula.

There isn’t solid evidence that formula with probiotics provides the claimed nutritional and health benefits. However, there also isn’t evidence that formula with probiotics is harmful for newborns. Due to the uncertainty and ongoing state of research, it’s recommended that you speak with your child’s healthcare provider before adding extra probiotics to their diet.