Probiotics for babies: Understanding the benefits and risks

Many research has shown that probiotics are good for the gut microbiome of adults, but what about babies? Do they also give the same health benefits? 

What are probiotics?

Generally speaking, probiotics refer to a combination of live beneficial bacteria and yeasts that naturally co-exist inside the body. 

The majority of people correlate bacteria with sickness or infection. Although bacteria is commonly viewed from a negative perspective, there are kinds of bacteria that are good for health. 

The two kinds of bacteria that regularly go in and on your body are good bacteria and bad bacteria. Probiotics are known to be made of good bacteria, which help keep the body healthy and functioning well. 

Having good bacteria in the body is known to be beneficial in many ways, such as fighting off bad bacteria if you acquire a lot of it and helping you feel better.

Furthermore, probiotics are only part of a larger picture related to the bacteria and the body, particularly the microbiome. 

The microbiome is a diverse community of microorganisms that work together to keep the body healthy. The microorganism community is made up of things called microbes [1]. 

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Your body homes trillions of microbes that work altogether for your own benefit. These microbes are a combination of the following: 

  • Bacteria
  • Fungi, like yeasts
  • Protozoa
  • Viruses

Every individual has a unique design of microbiome. There are no two people with exactly the same microbial cells. In fact, even twins have a different makeup of microbiomes. 

For a microorganism to be part of the probiotics, it should have several characteristics, such as: 

  • Being isolated from a human.
  • When eaten, it must survive inside the intestine after ingestion. 
  • Have a proven health benefit to the body
  • It can be safely consumed.

Probiotics for infants and formula: Are they safe? 

Probiotics consist of live microorganisms that live in the gut and provide some major health benefits. 

Probiotics for babies: Understanding the benefits and risks

Probiotic supplements include a collection of microbes, which help prevent various infections by occupying the digestive tract and prohibiting more harmful microorganisms from thriving inside the body. 

Moreover, probiotics supplementation provides a non-digestible component to promote the growth of gut bacteria.

Some examples of probiotic organisms include: 

  • Bifidobacterium
  • Lactobacillus
  • Streptococcus
  • Sacharomyces boulardii

With their good effects on the body, probiotics are considered good for healthy infants as well as they can help promote stronger immunity for them. 

Breastmilk can provide significant nutrients to the infant, and it is also a great source of probiotics, which is milk microbiota and prebiotics, like HMOs, that contribute to the development of the infant gut microbiota [2].

In comparison with breastmilk, a baby formula can’t give the probiotics that natural breast milk does. Consequently, many milk companies try to supplement infant formula with probiotics in the hope of mimicking the health benefits of natural breast milk. The probiotic supplements may help provide immunomodulators to the baby

Numerous research studies about babies and probiotics show to be safe to be used in healthy infants [3]. However, keep in mind that there is still a lack of large research on probiotics and infants. 

However, babies with serious medical conditions should not be given probiotics. Parents must discuss probiotics use for their infant with their doctor before even using them. 

Some things you need to consider before letting your baby take probiotics supplements.

  • There are still certain strains that may work in different ways.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers probiotics as a supplement. Hence, there are no regulations, including medications, nor proven to be generally safe for some babies. 
  • There is no official recommended dose for babies.
  • Some probiotic supplements have side effects, causing allergic reactions, stomach pain, diarrhea and gas and bloating.

Babies need special care; hence, it is still extremely advisable to talk to your doctor about any type of supplement before giving it to your infant, even if they are found to be healthy. 

Your pediatrician can only discuss and prescribe the need for probiotics. They can recommend them or another course of treatment that is most appropriate for your child.

Benefits of probiotics for infants

Probiotics are found to be beneficial in treating certain medical conditions of babies, including diarrhea and eczema or atopic dermatitis. Also, they are helpful in managing allergies, preventing urinary tract infections and relieving colic symptoms. 

Some other conditions of babies that probiotics can help manage include:

  • Acute infectious diarrhea
  • Antibiotic-associated diarrhea
  • Atopic diseases
  • Chronic inflammatory bowel disease
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis
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Acute infectious diarrhea

For some cases, probiotics can aid in the prevention of diarrhea in babies. The probiotic supplements are found to delay the symptoms of acute infectious diarrhea in healthy infants and children as well. 

Antibiotic-associated diarrhea

When your baby has to take antibiotics for any medical reason, your infant may experience diarrhea as a side effect. Given this, you may help your baby by giving them a probiotic, according to health experts. 

Based on research findings, probiotics have an overall protective effect in preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea. In fact, double-blind, placebo-controlled research suggests that babies who received probiotics had fewer episodes of diarrhea by 37.5 percent than the control group [4]. 

Atopic diseases

Babies with a high risk of developing atopic conditions can benefit from probiotic supplements, which are especially helpful for formula-fed infants. Some research also suggests that probiotics can also give benefits when taken while pregnant and breastfeeding.

Chronic inflammatory bowel disease 

Additionally, probiotics can help with the management of chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or chronic ulcerative colitis. This is much more useful when combined with or as a replacement for medications prescribed for the condition. 

Probiotics for babies: Understanding the benefits and risks

However, there is still no conclusive study that demonstrates whether it truly works as a treatment for the condition in babies. 

Some other conditions that probiotics may help treat or prevent include the following: 

  • Acne
  • Allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
  • Asthma
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Constipation
  • Clostridium difficile infection
  • Dental caries (tooth decay)
  • Diverticulitis
  • Hepatic encephalopathy
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Periodontal diseases (gum disease)
  • Traveler’s diarrhea
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Urinary tract infections

Necrotizing enterocolitis

Preterm babies are at a high risk of having necrotizing enterocolitis. The reason is because of antibiotic administration after birth and the limited development of normal digestive microorganisms. 

Probiotic supplementation can help preterm or low-birth-weight babies in developing vital microorganisms.

Colic in babies 

Colic can be identified when healthy babies cry three or more hours every day within three or more days of the week for a period of three weeks. Some research also found that probiotics can decrease the duration of crying in colicky babies [5]. 

If you want to prevent colic in the first place, you do not have to give your baby a probiotic supplement. There is no present evidence that supports probiotic use as a helpful tool.

Acute gastroenteritis

Acute gastroenteritis refers to a medical condition where the sufferers experience diarrhea or vomiting that lasts for more than seven days. When your baby experiences any related symptoms, you must immediately seek health advice from your doctor. 

Also, your doctor may prescribe probiotics, considering that it is a proven way to help with the condition. The effect of probiotics can compete with enteric pathogens. There are then fewer nutrients for the pathogens, and probiotics can increase immune response. 

One research conducted in a systematic review of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials has found that the use of probiotics was linked to a significantly lower risk of diarrhea lasting more than three days in comparison with a placebo [6]. 

Immune system

Babies and toddlers who spend most of their time in daycare may acquire diseases and infections more frequently than children who stay at home. 

Consequently, probiotics may help in decreasing your baby’s chance of getting sick. As cited in a study, there is a decrease in the incidence of rhinopharyngitis or the common cold for kids in daycare when they drink a fermented yogurt drink [7]. 

Risks and side effects of infant probiotics

Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are probiotics that are known to be safe, causing no negative side effects. Some probiotics may also trigger a mild allergy, such as the following: 

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Mild stomach ache
  • The passing of gas (flatulence)

The side effects observed in probiotics are commonly seen with higher than recommended doses. However, these are only mild and do not severely impact the baby’s health. 

Also, the side effects mostly appear in the first few times a baby takes probiotics, and they disappear after a few days, with regular probiotic consumption.

In terms of the potential adverse side effects of probiotics, it is crucial to understand that the negative side effects do not stem from the good bacteria themselves. 

Instead, some adverse reaction comes from poor control or inaccurate product labeling. Some poorer-quality probiotics may not include specific strains, making it unclear precisely what one gets. 

However, some other probiotics may lead to some major side effects, such as: 

  • Excess immune stimulation 
  • Gene transfer
  • Impaired metabolic activities
  • Systemic infections

Which foods contain probiotics?

Your everyday diet may contain probiotics. When your baby grows age, they may be able to eat the following food that is rich in probiotics. 

  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Buttermilk
  • Kimchi
  • Unpasteurized sauerkraut
  • Kefir
  • Tempeh
  • Miso-containing food
  • Sourdough bread
  • Fermented pickles
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[1] https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/science/microbiome/index.cfm
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6095009/
[3] https://www.mcri.edu.au/impact/watch-listen-download/download/fact-sheet-probiotics-for-infants-and-children
[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12403254/ 
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6415699/ 
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5681247/ 
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5084641/ 

Photograph: buregina/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.