When it comes to gut health, you’re pretty clued up. As in, you know the foods to avoid, the signs your microbiome could use some TLC and what can fuel intestinal health. And it’s one thing for you to swig kombucha all day or pop a probiotic in the morning, but lately, you’ve been seeing gut-boosting products aimed at your mini. Should you be giving your baby probiotics? We tapped Snehal Doshi, M.D., CEO at Millennium Neonatology, for his expert take.
First up, what are probiotics?
Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when consumed, provide health benefits. They can be found in certain foods (like yogurt and kimchi), dietary supplements and even some beauty products. When taken as a supplement, the aim is to colonize your gut with health-boosting bacteria. While more research is needed, a growing amount of evidence shows that probiotics could have a positive effect on digestive health, inflammation, certain skin conditions and more.
But do babies need probiotics?
“The science is very limited right now,” Dr. Doshi tells us. “I don’t think it’s ideal to give every healthy baby a probiotic, however, for certain conditions, research shows that probiotics can be helpful.” For premature babies, for example, probiotics can decrease the risk of getting an infection called necrotizing enterocolitis, he explains. “This has been proven time and time again, and a lot of hospitals in the country do this now.” There’s also some promising research on the link between probiotics and other conditions like eczema and colic (more on that below).
So how can probiotics help babies?
Probiotics have a few different applications for babies. Here are three of the most widely studied:
- Diarrhea: Loose bowels are a common occurrence among babies (particularly if they’re on antibiotics for an ear infection or any other issues), but if diarrhea continues, it can lead to dehydration. Per several studies (including this recent one published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology), certain strains of probiotic bacteria, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG), can help prevent or alleviate diarrhea.
- Eczema: Research from the Netherlands found that a particular combination of probiotic bacteria (Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactococcus lactis) given to mothers during pregnancy and to babies during the first 12 months of life prevented the incidence of eczema in high-risk children (i.e., those with a family history of allergies). Another Finnish study concluded that LGG reduced the incidence of atopic dermatitis in at-risk infants through the age of 7 years.
- Colic: Per a meta-analysis in Pediatrics, Lactobacillus reuteri DSM17938 can help reduce crying in breastfed babies with colic. However, scientists say the effects on formula-fed infants with colic need further research.
Is it safe to give babies probiotics?
While most studies on babies and probiotics have deemed them safe, it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a huge amount of research done in this area. For healthy kids, Dr. Doshi recommends holding off for now. “The research isn’t quite sufficient yet. Probiotics sound great, but you have to remember that they’re live bacteria.” In other words? Don’t just give your kid a probiotic without a valid reason.
What should parents look for when buying probiotics for babies?
The FDA considers probiotics a supplement, which means they’re not regulated in the same way that medications are. “You want to make sure you’re getting something that’s actually beneficial and not just something that’s been marketed at you, so make sure it’s coming from a reputable brand,” says Dr. Doshi. And you want to make sure that you get the right strain for whatever issue your baby is having.
Here’s a tip: Next time you’re in the pharmacy, take a few photos on your phone of probiotic products aimed at babies. Then, at your next doctor’s appointment, show your pediatrician the images and get their professional advice. “That way, while you’re already there for something, you don’t have to pay for another co-pay just to ask them that question.”
Bottom line: There’s currently not enough evidence to recommend that all babies should take probiotics daily, but research shows that some strains may help with certain health issues. If you’re considering giving your infant a probiotic, check in with your doctor first.