Do Baby Probiotics Really Improve Your Infant’s Health?
Baby probiotics are everywhere and surrounded by lofty promises. But do they actually work?
From infant formula to fruit-flavored gummies, baby probiotics now come in all kinds of beverages, foods, and supplements for newborns, infants, and toddlers. Widely hyped as being good for a baby’s gut and for boosting immunity, probiotics are beneficial bacteria that, in theory, balance out the potentially harmful microbes living in infants’ digestive tracts. Beyond that, the best baby probiotics are said to help with common conditions such as colic, eczema, and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. But that’s all according to marketing. Are any of these claims backed by robust science, and which are the best baby probiotics for your kid?
“We have theories for why probiotics work, but we do not know the exact mechanisms,” says Daniel Merenstein, MD, a baby probiotics expert and director of research programs in family medicine at Georgetown University. “We don’t even know what a healthy microbiome really is, so we can’t say that [balancing it] has specific benefits.”
First, some baby microbiome background: All newborns have trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms living throughout their bodies, but predominantly in their guts. Most of these bugs help infants and toddlers stay healthy. But some others, if allowed to proliferate, can make kids sick.
External factors such as diet, illnesses, and taking antibiotics can throw a baby’s microbial balance out of whack, enabling hazardous microbes to multiply. This doesn’t always result in a child becoming ill — the body has its own defenses to fend off infection — but it certainly can. For example, when taking antibiotics, which wipe out the gut’s good bacteria along with the bad, about 25 to 30 percent of children develop diarrhea that can turn severe and even become life-threatening.
Here’s where probiotics come in: When taken as a dietary supplement, or when baby probiotics are included in foods, live microorganisms replenish the gut with good bacteria to help balance out the microbiome. By doing so, they may assist in staving off or reducing the severity of sickness.
Health Benefits of Baby Probiotics
Despite what product marketers might want us to believe, not all probiotics are good for specific health effects. There is a vast array of probiotic strains, most belonging to either the Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium group. Each strain within these groups has unique characteristics, functions, and potential health perks. The benefit of baby probiotics depends on the specific strain. And researchers haven’t probed every strain out there.
This is why, aside from a few probiotic strains shown to be effective for certain health conditions, it’s too soon to say with certainty that all babies and toddlers benefit from taking daily probiotics. Some could benefit, Merenstein says. But not enough enough clinical trials have been done on children to know for sure. For instance, probiotics seem to do some general good for the immune system and gastrointestinal health, he says. But from the existing research, it’s difficult to tease out exactly why or how they’re helping — or which strains are actually effective.
That said, experts do know for certain that probiotics are overwhelmingly safe with few, if any, negative side effects. And although many more clinical trials are needed, it seems that most strains hold the potential to do something positive for health. But again, is this enough proof to make it worth giving a relatively healthy baby or toddler a daily probiotic?
“When we get into whether probiotics are helpful for healthy kids, it’s sort of like multivitamins,” Merenstein says. “My kids take multivitamins, but the data supporting them is pretty poor. The evidence is not there. But at the same time, multivitamins are not going to hurt them.”
However, Merenstein points out that probiotics are considerably more expensive than most kids’ multis. Parents could pay a lot for baby probiotic products that won’t hurt their children — but may not help them much either.
Best Baby Probiotics for Specific Conditions
While we’re still years away from knowing whether all infants and toddlers should take probiotics daily, there is solid science showing that certain strains can, in fact, help with specific health issues. A few examples:
Diarrhea: Runny poop is not uncommon among infants and young children. But if diarrhea persists, it can lead to dangerous dehydration. Taking antibiotics for an ear infection or other ailment makes diarrhea more likely. Fortunately, several studies show that a few select strains help prevent or alleviate diarrhea. These include Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, or LGG, found in Culturelle Kids Daily Chewables, Culturelle Daily Probiotic Packets, and MetaKids Baby Probiotic drops, as well as Saccharomyces boulardi lyo CNCM 1-745, available in FlorastorKids Daily Probiotic Supplement.
Colic: “The probiotic L. reuteri DSM 17938 has been well-studied for infants with colic, and the best studies are those done on breastfed babies,” Merenstein says. “It won’t get rid of colic completely, but it will decrease crying time.” Some research suggests L. reuteri DSM 17938 may also relieve gastrointestinal upset associated with colic. This strain is found in BioGaia Protectis products, available as drops for infants or chewable tabs for older children, as well as Gerber Soothe Probiotic Colic Drops, Gerber Good Start Soothe Powder Infant Formula, and Pedia-Lax Probiotic Yums.
Eczema and Allergies: Research suggests that LGG may also reduce eczema and other food allergy-related flareups. “If a child is at high risk for eczema and allergies — if there is a family history, for example — then consider giving it to your child and the rest of your family as a preventative measure,” Merenstein says. Multiple studies also suggest that babies of parents who took probiotics while pregnant are less likely to develop eczema. The evidence includes a Finnish trial that showed LGG, specifically, was effective.
Gastrointestinal issues: Beyond easing diarrhea, probiotics may also help children with symptoms caused by irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, or ulcerative colitis. There is some evidence L. reuteri DSM 17938 may benefit in these cases. For children old enough to consume yogurt or yogurt drinks, L. plantarum 299v (found in three Goodbelly products), L. casei Paracasei CNCM I-1518 (found in DanActive Actimel), and B. lactis CNCM I-2494 (found in Activia yogurt) might be beneficial. However, researchers have have studied these strains in adults, not children.
How to Buy Baby the Best Baby Probiotics
To help you shop for specific baby probiotic products that have proven helpful for various conditions, check out the 2021 Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products Available in the USA. Updated each year to capture the latest science, this is the guide that many doctors consult before recommending particular probiotics for kids. “If you want to know which probiotic to give Johnny when he is on antibiotics or has ulcerative colitis, that site does really good job,” Merenstein says. But it’s still smart to run your pick by your child’s doctor before buying it.
Merenstein also advises parents to check out the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics website. This research-based organization has created several short, easy-to-understand videos and infographics on how probiotics work and how to choose the best products.
As a final note, Merenstein says that when shopping for probiotics, always check the Supplement Facts panel to make sure the strain or strains are listed precisely. Each probiotic name should include the genus (such as Lactobacillus, sometimes shortened to L.), the species (such as reuteri), and a set of numbers or letters to indicate the exact strain.
“If a label doesn’t list three names for the probiotic, then the company isn’t being entirely truthful, and you really can’t know what’s in the product,” Merenstein says. “For example, if it says just Lactobacillus or acidophilus, or it says only L. reuteri with no number after it, then you don’t know what you’re getting. That doesn’t mean that product won’t do a child any good. But without all the information, it’s hard to tell.”
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