While shopping for baby's meals and snacks, you've probably noticed that probiotics have infiltrated baby's food aisle. Thought of as the good bacteria in our body, probiotics can confer health benefits. For our little ones specifically, they can do as much as reducing colic and eczema, but can they actually make our babies healthier? That's the million-dollar question that research is still trying to get at.
Different strains of probiotics serve different purposes. Doctors, for example, often suggest that the two most commonly known groups -- Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium -- promote digestive health. Though we need more research to confirm this claim, these probiotics are believed to help move foods through your gut, ultimately assisting digestion and bringing relief to people who suffer from diarrhea, lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome. We still know very little as to how probiotics work and what kind of health problems each strain can address. There's also very little scientific evidence that they benefit anything other than the digestive system. So what do we know so far? Here's the lowdown on probiotics and how they can benefit your baby's health.
Many millions of bacteria have lived in your child's gastrointestinal system since birth. As he passed through the birth canal, your baby picked up some of your microbes, which prompted bad and good bacteria (also known as flora) to colonize his GI tract. Once baby is born, nursing is the optimal way to help him build up more good bacteria, because breast milk contains substances called prebiotics -- fibers that our bodies can't digest, but that the healthy bugs in our guts feed on to live and grow. Though these fibers can pass through your breast milk, it's important to note that formula-fed babies do not automatically need to be supplemented with probiotics.
Doctors sometimes recommend probiotics to children who take antibiotics to fight things like an ear infection. This can help maintain or restore the ratio of good to bad bacteria present in their guts. But there are other situations that could warrant giving baby a good-bacteria punch:
- Diarrhea: While changes in bowel movement are common among infants, probiotics may help reduce diarrhea symptoms. Lactobacillus specifically was found to be safe and effective in treating infectious diarrhea in children. And certain strains can also help alleviate bouts that are associated with antibiotics.
- Colic: Multiple studies suggest that babies who take probiotics -- more specifically the Lactobacillus reuteri strain -- have fewer bouts of colics, especially if they take them during the first three months of life. More specifically, they tend to have shorter crying spells and less upset stomachs. Though promising, the study needs to be replicated before probiotics can become standard care in the United States. We also need research to see how they benefit formula-fed infants, if at all.
- Eczema: There's evidence that probiotics can help with eczema flare-ups. While they do not prevent eczema itself, they can inhibit sensitivity to certain allergens (like milk) and, in doing so, may help reduce the risk of atopic eczema in babies.
- Immune System: The consumption of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains have demonstrated to reduce certain acute respiratory symptoms associated with allergies and the common cold, according to a few studies. Although, many experts are skeptical about this claim.
If you are breastfeeding and want to promote baby's probiotic growth, you can give your milk a little prebiotic boost with fruits and vegetables like bananas, onions, artichoke and apple skin. If baby is old enough to eat solids, yogurts are a great source of probiotics, and high-fiber foods can give healthy gut bacteria the fuel they need to thrive. That said, if baby is too young for dairy and other solid foods, you can opt for supplements.
Probiotics supplements that are recommended for infants come in drops, powder, or chewable tablets and can be found online or at grocery stores like Whole Foods Market. But before you introduce them to baby, you need to talk to your pediatrician. The research needs to catch up with the trend. So he or she won't be able to prescribe any probiotics, but he'll be able to help you digest all the information out there and come up with the healthiest, safest course of action to tackle your little one's ailments.