Probiotics are live strains of healthy bacteria that are intended to have health benefits, especially for the digestive system. These supplements are becoming increasingly popular as research suggests that our gut bacteria and microbiome play a larger role in our overall health than we realized.
"Research has shown that these bacteria talk to the brain and our immune system," says Rinarani Sanghavi, M.D., Director of Neurogastroenterology and GI Motility at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "They may play a huge role in brain development, cognition and mood."
With all the possible benefits, it's no wonder parents are increasingly curious about giving probiotics to children. But are these supplements safe for kids – and do they really make a difference? Dr. Sanghavi explains.
What are the benefits of probiotics for kids?
Researchers are still learning about all the benefits of probiotics and how they work. Probiotics may help with digestion, preventing infectious diseases and even playing a role in maintaining a healthy weight.
Some studies say probiotics help children with digestive issues such as:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Infectious diarrhea
However, other studies say probiotics have no effect. Dr. Sanghavi believes this is because each child has his or her individual microbiome.
"The microbiome is unique for each individual, almost like a fingerprint," Dr. Sanghavi explains. "Most probiotics contain strains of lactobacillus, but there are many different types that may or may not exist in your gut."
Dr. Sanghavi says that probiotics may only help if they contain the right strains of bacteria for your child's gut; otherwise, they may not have any effect.
Are probiotics safe for children?
Though it is unclear if probiotics benefit children, it's clear they typically won't cause harm in healthy children. However, Dr. Sanghavi recommends parents wait until a child is over 1 year of age before giving probiotics. "Currently, there just isn't enough safety data on probiotics for infants," she says.
Children who are seriously ill or who have a compromised immune system should consult a physician before taking probiotics. Some studies suggest that children with a central line or port should also avoid probiotics. In children with these medical devices, there have been reported cases of sepsis. If your child has a port or central line, always talk to your physician before using probiotics.
Can probiotics cause side effects in children?
Because probiotics are not regulated or tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it's unclear if they cause side effects like gas, constipation or diarrhea. If your child begins to have these issues after they start taking probiotics, you should stop the probiotics to see if the symptoms go away.
Can you give a child too many probiotics?
There is no recommended or set dose of probiotics for children. Talk with your child's pediatrician or a pediatric GI doctor to determine which is the best probiotic supplement and how much to give your child.
"I don't think a more expensive probiotic is necessarily better," adds Dr. Sanghavi.
How can I promote probiotics naturally in my child?
If your child is a newborn or infant, breastfeeding is the best way to provide probiotics. Breastmilk contains probiotics and prebiotics (food for the good bacteria) from the mother as well as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). These specialized carbohydrates only appear in human breast milk and act as "prebiotic," encouraging healthy bacteria growth. If you don't breastfeed, some formulas are now including probiotics and HMOs to help build a baby's microbiome.
If your child is older, encourage a diet of healthy, unprocessed foods. Fresh fruits, vegetables and yogurt all help promote better gut health and health in general. Your child should avoid fatty foods or sugary beverages that not only hurt gut health but overall health. See more probiotic foods to promote gut health.
Additionally, make an effort to limit your child's exposure to oral antibiotics, which can kill off good bacteria in your child's gut. Before asking for antibiotics always make sure your child has a bacterial infection, not a viral infection. A pediatrician will help make this decision for you.
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