The pros of probiotics for babies

Do probiotics work to settle tummy troubles, and are they safe? We investigate.

11 February 2014
by Karen Nel

“Probiotics are ‘good bacteria’ that have been found to be beneficial when introduced into the gut,” says PaedIQ paediatrician Dr Iqbal Karbanee (www.paediq.com). In the first few weeks of a baby’s life, their gut becomes colonised with all kinds of bacteria which influence the digestive process and immunity. “The type of bacteria in the baby’s gut plays a role in the production of winds, as well as influencing the sensitivity of the gastrointestinal system. Probiotics help to introduce good bacteria.”

Where do they come from?

Probiotics occur naturally in certain foods, such as yoghurt, cheese and buttermilk, and also in human breastmilk. “Breastmilk will provide a sufficient dose of probiotics for most infants,” says specialist dietitian for paediatrics Kerryn Gibson. “Infant formula can also provide infants with probiotics, provided it is a formula fortified with probiotics and/or prebiotics.” (Prebiotics are substances that promote the growth of probiotics.)

Why take supplements?

“Studies on the use of probiotics in infants have shown a reduction in abdominal cramps and winds, as well as allergy symptoms. These benefits have not been shown to be major, but because probiotics are relatively inexpensive, easily available and safe to use, their role in infants has become increasingly widespread,” says Dr Karbanee.

Does your baby need them?

Medical evidence on the use of probiotics is currently rather limited, but the use of probiotic supplements (in addition to nutritional sources) does seem to have a positive effect on the following conditions:

  • Colic: In a review published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Pediatrics in October 2013, researchers concluded that the use of probiotics in babies who are exclusively breastfed may be effective in treating colic. Out of five treatment trials, three showed positive effects for breastfed babies. This follows an earlier study in Italy, published in Pediatrics, which found that the use of probiotics in breastfed babies reduced the amount of crying to 51 minutes a day, whereas babies in groups given an anti-gas remedy, and those given a placebo, were still crying for 145 minutes a day.
  • Eczema: Probiotics may help to prevent the incidence of familial eczema. In a study conducted in Finland and published in The Lancet, babies whose parents had a history of eczema were given probiotics before birth (through the mother’s diet) and for six months after birth. These babies were found to be half as likely to develop eczema as those in the control group, who were given a placebo.
  • Diarrhoea: Probiotics are a good option if your child suffers from diarrhoea, because they replace the good bacteria in the gut. They can help to shorten the duration of infectious diarrhoea, and can prevent the incidence of diarrhoea following the use of antibiotics. “Probiotics should typically be used if a child requires a course of antibiotics. For other conditions, it’s best to first consult with a trained paediatric healthcare provider,” says Gibson.

Keen to try them?

Remember to:

  • Ask your doctor: “The evidence for the universal use of probiotics is not yet conclusive. Ideally, parents should discuss the use of probiotics and the choice of a specific supplement with their healthcare provider,” says paediatrician Dr Iqbal Karbanee.
  • Read the fine print: “As probiotics are bacteria, the supplier should stipulate the batch number and the exact strain on the packaging,” says Dr Karbanee. Look out for something like “Lactobacillus reuteri” followed by a specific strain number. The batch number is usually printed alongside the expiry date.
  • Store them correctly: Some probiotics require refrigeration to remain effective.
  • Choose a suitable format: Probiotics are available in different formats. Babies should be given probiotic drops or powder that can be mixed with fluids or foods like yoghurt, while toddlers will cope well with the chewable tablets.
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