As a first-time mom and nutrition specialist, the health of my infant child is at the very top of the list of my priorities. So, I am out to answer the following question: can probiotics for babies help to prevent and treat some of the most common health issues in infants and babies?
As a new mom to an infant baby, I can attest to the fact that every single sneeze, hiccup, skin bump, and strange poopy diaper makes me worry. After scouring through books by pediatricians to find answers, I break down and call my baby’s pediatrician (slightly embarrassed that, as a health specialist myself, I doubt the literature and the experiences of countless other mothers).
It’s no surprise that, most of the time, I’ve had to confront the facts: most of these things are normal for a tiny person who is learning to adapt to life outside the womb.
One of the most important aspects of the adaptation process is building up and strengthening the immune system. Unfortunately for babies (and for the fragile heart of parents), that adaptation process often comes with a lot of discomfort. From the dreaded colic to itchy eczema, these health issues are directly related to the baby’s immune system.
It is well-established that probiotics in adults help promote health in many ways, from gastrointestinal health and immune support to mood improvement and even metabolic health.
Do these same benefits translate to babies? What health conditions can probiotics for babies help to prevent and treat? If you start giving babies probiotics, does it have an impact on their immune health later in life?
To answer these questions and more, I will review the most up-to-date literature on probiotics for babies.
What are Probiotics?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty research of probiotics for babies, let’s review the basics of probiotics.
The “official” definition of probiotics as stated by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) is:
“Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
In other words, probiotics are bacteria (and sometimes fungi or other microorganisms) that live on your body and promote health.
Probiotic microorganisms are different from other types of microorganisms categorized as “pathogenic”. Pathogenic microorganisms cause illness while probiotics can help to prevent and treat illness.
You can find probiotics, also referred to as “good bacteria”, in or on most parts of your body that are exposed to the outside world, including:
- the skin
- the digestive tract (including those that are introduced thanks to the food we eat)
- the genital tract
As adults, probiotics make it onto and into your body from the environment, food, and (only recently in human history) probiotic supplements and creams.
Our first exposure to probiotics, however, is much earlier than that. In the next section, I’ll discuss the establishment of good bacteria in babies’ bodies.
Why Might Probiotics be Useful for Babies?
For generations, parents and doctors alike believed that when babies are born, their gut is completely sterile. Their first exposure to healthy bacteria was thought to be through breast milk or formula.
Recent research, however, suggests that neither the placenta nor the amniotic fluid is completely sterile. Researchers have examined the placenta, amniotic fluid, and meconium (baby’s first “poop”) and have found evidence that probiotics can move from mom to baby even before the baby is born.
This means that babies are exposed to some “good bacteria” even before they pass through the birth canal. Then, newborns continue to acquire probiotics naturally, through breastmilk (or, in some cases, formula) and interactions with their environment.
The issue is that even after:
- exposure to bacteria in the womb
- an immune boost from colostrum (the antibody-filled yellow substance that moms produce before breast milk)
- exposure to the environment (babies will happily try snacking on literally anything that comes near their mouth)
some babies’ immune systems still have issues reacting appropriately to threats.
This is where probiotics might be helpful. Probiotics are able to enhance your baby’s natural immune system defenses by:
- directly combating threats (the “good bacteria” displacing or fighting off “bad bacteria”)
- regulating immune responses to make them more effective without overreacting or underacting
Since this is the case, could probiotics help protect babies’ bodies from illness and discomfort caused by abnormal immune responses? In the next section, I’ll review what the research says around different potential uses of probiotics for babies.
Does Science Support Using Probiotics for Babies?
When babies first come into the outside world, they have weak immune systems. As some babies adjust to eating, humidity, allergens, bacteria in the environment, and hundreds of other elements, they can have adverse reactions, some of which could be deadly.
Below, I review the research for some of the conditions in babies that might be able to be prevented or treated with probiotics, including:
- necrotizing enterocolitis
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a devastating disease that affects newborn babies and is hard to treat.
In infants with NEC, part of the intestine gets inflamed. This can be due to bacterial overgrowth (the bad kind) or bacterial or viral infections in the intestine. The inflammation can damage or kill some of the tissue in the baby’s intestine.
NEC is most common in:
- premature infants
- low birth weight infants
- newborns with health conditions
In these babies, their immature intestine doesn’t provide a strong-enough barrier against dangerous bacteria.
Since probiotics can help to displace “bad” bacteria, researchers have explored the possibility of using probiotics to prevent and treat necrotizing enterocolitis.
One study carried out in neonatal intensive care units in Taiwan enrolled 434 very low birth weight preterm infants. Researchers gave half of the infants breast milk or formula with added probiotics (Bifidobacterium bifidum and Lactobacillus acidophilus) for 6 weeks. When compared to the group that didn’t receive probiotics, infants who received probiotics had a significantly lower chance of necrotizing enterocolitis and death.
Reviews of several studies, including one in the Cochrane Review Journal and another in the Journal of Pediatrics, confirm that giving probiotics to preterm and low birth weight infants significantly reduces the risk of death and illness. The evidence is so strong that giving vulnerable babies probiotics is common practice in most hospitals.
Colic is one of the most common and distressing health issues for parents and their infant children. The condition is defined as excessive crying (at least three hours a day for three days a week for at least three weeks) in a baby that is otherwise healthy.
The exact cause of colic is unclear. But it is likely due to painful gut contractions that may be driven by changes in baby’s gut bacteria.
A recent study carried out with 71 newborn infants found that colicky babies have different bacterial patterns in their poop than non-colicky babies. What’s more, systematic reviews published in two different journals concluded that some strains of probiotics, specifically L. reuteri, may be effective in treating colic in breastfed infants (at least a 50% decrease).
Unfortunately, there is a lack of well-designed studies using probiotics as a treatment for colic in formula-fed babies.
The use of probiotics for infants and babies with diarrhea is less well-studied. But the research we do have suggests that probiotics could be just as beneficial in younger populations — at least one probiotic strain, anyway.
A systematic review found that Lactobacillus GG had a consistent antidiarrheal effect in infants. This effect was especially strong when the diarrhea was caused by a rotavirus infection.
Allergies and Eczema
Since allergies and eczema result from abnormal reactions of the immune system to the environment, research has looked into using probiotics to ease their symptoms.
So far the research here isn’t clear, though.
There are some studies that show positive effects. For example, there are studies showing that probiotics may help alleviate intestinal inflammation in children with eczema.
But there is little evidence that probiotics can actively prevent food allergies. And, worryingly, some studies have actually shown an increased risk of allergies in infants given certain probiotics (specifically L. acidophilus).
All that being said, probiotics may yet be able to offer your baby protection against allergies and eczema — if you take them, not your baby! Initial evidence suggests that giving probiotics to women during pregnancy and breastfeeding reduces the risk of eczema in children during the first two years of life.
You May Also Like: The Best Probiotic Supplements for Toddlers’ Immune Systems
Probiotics for Babies: Are There Risks?
It is important to know that giving your baby any supplement or medication is not without risk.
To quote the authors of an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Although probiotics have an excellent overall safety record, they should be used with caution in certain patient groups—particularly [babies] born prematurely or [babies] with immune deficienc[ies].”
If you aren’t careful about the dosage and strain you give your baby, they may develop side effects (such as an infection or an increased risk of certain diseases later in life). Alternatively, your baby might not get any benefits from their probiotics at all.
Some things to consider when giving probiotics to your baby are:
- the scientific support for using a specific strain of probiotics for the illness or disease you are trying to prevent or treat
- how strong your baby’s immune system is
- the form of delivery of probiotics: indirectly through breastmilk, through foods, or directly as a supplement — note: if you choose to give your baby probiotic supplements directly, you will need to be more careful than if you choose either of the other routes
What are the Best Ways to Give Your Babies Probiotics?
First, let me say that all research confirms that breast milk is the best food for your baby. Even skimming the research will tell you how incredible breast milk is for your child! (Did you know that when you breastfeed, your body can tell if your child is sick and change its make-up to help strengthen her immune system? But, that’s a story for another article.)
If you are skeptical about giving your baby any sort of medicine or supplement directly, you can pass it to them indirectly through your breast milk.
While not everything you consume affects breast milk composition, studies show probiotic supplements do. Research shows that if women take probiotic supplements while breastfeeding, they can enhance the immune-boosting power of your breast milk.
So, while you might not pass the bacteria on, directly, to your baby, she’ll still reap the immune benefits of the probiotic!
In fact, studies show that women who supplemented with probiotics during pregnancy and breastfeeding had children with a lower risk of developing atopic eczema during the first two years of life. (This might be a particularly good idea of your baby may have inherited a high risk of allergic skin reactions from you!)
Note: Right now, the studies on the benefits of taking a probiotic while breastfeeding are limited mostly to eczema. We can’t assume that all the benefits of probiotics for babies are the same whether given directly or through breast milk.
If your baby has started eating foods, one way of improving his gut health is through the foods he eats — specifically, by getting him to eat fermented foods. Fermented foods, which naturally contain beneficial bacteria, can increase the population of healthy bacteria in your baby’s gut.
It is common for parents in many cultures to give their children probiotic-containing foods as a way of helping to alleviate digestive issues. And research confirms this is a helpful strategy, especially to ease the symptoms of diarrhea.
Most studies looking at the benefits of probiotics for babies have used supplements, rather than food or breast milk. This is because the strain and quantity of probiotics are easier to control in supplement form.
Keep in mind that the effects of probiotic supplements depend on the strain they contain. So, make sure you’re giving your baby the strain and dosage that is right for the condition(s) you are trying to treat or prevent.
Related Article: Why, How, and When to Take Probiotic Supplements
What are the Best Probiotic Supplements for Babies?
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If you choose to supplement your baby’s diet with probiotics, which should you choose? Here are my top five picks for baby-safe probiotic supplements!
Remember, you should always consult your baby’s pediatrician before giving your child a new medication or supplement.
These liquid probiotic drops are meant for babies and adults alike. They contain 12 probiotic strains, including B. infantis. Make sure to discuss how often and how much of this probiotic to give your baby because her dose will be smaller than that for an adult.
Product researchers designed this dairy-free probiotic specifically for infants over 6 months old. It comes in powder form to add to formula or milk. It contains a probiotic blend as well as a prebiotic (inulin) to help the probiotic bacteria thrive in your baby’s intestine.
These probiotic drops are designed for newborns to babies up to 1 year old. Since pediatricians recommend that breastfed babies take vitamin D supplement drops in the first year of life, this supplement allows parents to cover their baby’s vitamin D needs while also supplementing with two strains of probiotics: Lactobacillus G.G. and Bifidobacterium L.
You can add Lovebug Tiny Tummies to milk, formula, or food for babies 6-12 months old. It contains five strains, including Lactobacillus GG which, as mentioned above, research shows is effective at treating diarrhea.
Evivo is a type of probiotic that researchers designed for parents to use together with breast milk. Its goal is to displace harmful bacteria that can cause colic, eczema, allergies, and (down the road) obesity and diabetes.
It is the first and only probiotic proven to kick these bad guys out of your baby’s gut. For this reason, pediatricians often use it in hospitals to treat preterm babies.
Take Home Message
Research shows that probiotics for babies are a realistic and effective option for treating many conditions. In the hospital setting, the use of probiotics is most common in ill, premature, and low birthweight babies at risk of necrotizing enterocolitis. Later in life, they have also been shown to be effective for gut health, allergies, eczema, and respiratory health.
It is essential to talk to your child’s pediatrician about supplementing with probiotics before you start to make sure you have chosen the right strain. You also need to make sure that your child doesn’t have any health conditions that may make probiotics risky for her.