WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS?
An infant at the time of birth has a sterile gastrointestinal tract. However, bacterial colonization takes place very rapidly and remain there throughout the rest of life.
There are many factors that influence our makeup and function of gut microbiota, a fancy word for the community of micro-organisms (source):
- genetics (family members have similar microbiota)
- mode of delivery at birth (vaginal delivery exposes infants to the mother’s bacteria at birth, which influences the infant’s gut bacteria)
- the method of infant feeding (breastmilk is a great source of probiotics with >700 species of bacteria! source)
- use of medications (e.g. antibiotics, NSAIDS)
GUT MICROBIOTA FUNCTIONS
- aids in the process of breaking down proteins, carbohydrates, fats
- aids in transporting nutrients throughout the body
- produce vitamins K and B
- improves absorption of certain nutrients, like magnesium, calcium, and iron
- nourishes the cells of the intestinal wall, further aiding in digestion and absorption of food
- regulates appetite
- involved in the development of immune system (70% of the body’s immune system is found in the gut)
- defends against pathogens
- affects mood and behavior (hormones, neurotransmitters, and other factors from the gut send signals to the brain)
Research shows that people who suffer from certain diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and allergy, obesity, celiac disease, have a different microbiota when compared to that of healthy individuals.
USE OF PROBIOTICS IN PREVENTION AND TREATMENT OF CLINICAL DISEASES
However, I do want to highlight some current research findings:
- prevention of antibiotic associated diarrhea (source)
- treatment of colic in breastfed babies (source)
- potential for decreasing the risk of food allergy (source)
ARE PROBIOTICS SAFE FOR CHILDREN?
For healthy term infants, a recent double-blind, randomized, palacebo-controlled study showed that there were no apparent adverse events from long-term consumption of formula supplemented with two specific strains. In fact, all infants showed normal growth, and there were fewer reports of colic, healthcare visits, and antibiotic use.
The bottom line: Probiotics are considered safe for Healthy children. More research is needed before doctors can start prescribing probiotics for specific illnesses. As with any dietary change or supplementation in your child’s diet, be sure to check with your pediatrician first. However, note that probiotics aren’t recommended for children who are chronically ill or have a compromised immune system.
FOOD VS. SUPPLEMENT
Being a registered dietitian, I’m a huge proponent of the FOOD FIRST approach. Research suggests real food sources of probiotics may be more effective than supplements. It maybe because of the actual bacteria themselves or because the foods also contain many other vital nutrients (e.g. protein, calcium, and magnesium) that offer a symbiotic benefit.
Also keep in mind that dietary supplements are not tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration like medications. That means quality and dosing can vary from product to product, perhaps even batch to batch.
You also know from our baby led weaning journey that I’m all about offering a wide variety of flavors and textures from early on. Offering fermented foods is a great way to exposure their palates to the tart/sour flavor.
Top food sources:
- kefir (we’re huge fans of Lifeway)
- cottage cheese
- some cheeses (cultured)
- cultured non-dairy yogurts (e.g. Nancy’s)
- picked vegetables, like sauerkraut and kimchi – I personally haven’t introduced them to my 2 year old yet, but I’m planning on starting with sauerkraut first. Being Korean, there will definitely be a lot of kimchi in his life. They are pretty high in sodium (check out this post salt/sodium for babies & toddlers), though, so keep that in mind when offering.
- look for labels that says “live and active cultures” or look at the ingredient list and make sure the specific probiotic strains are listed.
- At this time, there isn’t enough research to support the use of probiotics to help prevent or treat specific disease/condition
- For normal, healthy infants and children, there is no harm in giving probiotics for overall health
- Choose food first over supplements. They provide additional nutrients and are absorbed better in the body. Remember, you are what you eat. But more importantly, you are what you absorb.
- Offer a wide variety of foods for maximum benefit.