Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that populate your digestive tract and comprise the diverse network of microorganisms known as your gut microbiome. This community differs considerably from those known to cause infection in that probiotics may offer many health benefits.
The positive effects can be wide-ranging – they may offer support for immune function, reduce inflammation, and promote weight loss, in addition to improving digestive health.
It is vital to maintain balance, however. When harmful bacteria overwhelm probiotics, you may be susceptible to several unwanted chronic medical conditions. Even children can be negatively affected when the number and diversity of microorganisms within the gut microbiome is reduced.
As probiotic dietary supplements continue to be a hot topic, much of the discussion surrounds the possible effects in adults.
In this article, we’ll help you determine if the proposed benefits are relatable to children by reviewing the development of their microbiome, signs of digestive issues, and the science behind probiotic use in kids.
The Microbiome in Children
As you may imagine, children aren’t born with a fully developed microbiome. The microbiome of adults differs considerably from that of children.
The probiotic community can also vary based on whether or not a child is breastfed; those that are, typically have a more uniform microbiome. While probiotic diversity is vital later in life, this isn’t the case early on.
Children’s gut microbiome is less diverse by design, as their immune system would have difficulty keeping a variable group of bacteria in check while still in its developing stages.
Factors like breastfeeding and the subsequent introduction of solid foods allow for the gut microbiome to naturally mature. This process is vital for aging children as a well-rounded probiotic community has been linked to healthy growth and development.
How Do I Know If My Child Could Benefit from Probiotic Use?
As probiotics are alleged to offer a wide array of health benefits, the signs and symptoms that your child’s microbiome is out of sorts can be just variable. Identifying issues can be complicated further if your child is too young to communicate.
With infants, you may notice:
- An increased or decreased frequency of bowel movements
- A change in the consistency and size of bowel movements
- Straining during bowel movements
- Increased fussiness and crying
In older kids, these signs can be easier to identify as they can better communicate stomach pain or changes in bowel movement habits.
It’s also important to note that their microbiome may negatively impact much more than just digestive health when it isn’t functioning as it should. Probiotics have been linked to allergies, immune function, mood, and even oral health.
Common Probiotics Tested in Children and Their Benefits
The potential benefits offered by probiotics have been well-studied in human subjects. As they seem to provide many benefits, there is also substantial research regarding the effects of probiotics in children.
The composition of infants’ microbiome may contribute to the development of colic. The potential role for probiotics in this setting was tested; crying time was decreased in those treated with the combination of pre- and probiotics.
A review of 4 trials investigated the use of probiotic dietary supplements in children with constipation. The researchers concluded that probiotic treatment reduced both stomach pain and the need for enemas when compared to placebo, though bowel movement frequency and straining during defecation were unaffected.
Benefits were not seen in preschool children with upset stomachs, however. Those that received a probiotic dietary supplement over 5-days did not have better outcomes compared to the placebo group.
As discussed previously, probiotics may also offer benefits above and beyond just supporting digestive health.
In children with tooth decay, treatment with a probiotic dietary supplement had an inhibitory effect on bacterial and fungal formation.
Another randomized trial tested the effects of probiotic treatment in kids with seasonal allergies. Researchers found that probiotics were effective in improving symptoms and quality of life.
The positive results achieved after 1-year of treatment were reversed after discontinued use of the probiotics. This illustrates the potential importance of keeping up with the regimen for the best long-term results.
According to this review, it is important to address probiotic use in children on a case by case basis.
So far, the most compelling evidence is for specific strains used to treat infectious diarrhea, infantile colic, irritable bowel syndrome, and food allergies. As the efficacy is strain-specific, results can’t be generalized to any situation.
For this reason, it is best to speak with the doctor to determine the underlying cause of the symptoms before using probiotics to treat them.
Probiotics Brands for Kids
We have reviewed many probiotics at HighYa, a few of which offer a full line of dietary supplements for children.
Culturelle is a great example. Their products that are geared towards kids include:
- Daily Probiotic Packets
- Daily Probiotic Chewables
- Kids Regularity
- Kids Complete Multivitamin + Probiotic
- Kids Daily Probiotic + Complete Multivitamin
- Kids Ultimate Balance for Antibiotics
These products range from about $15–$30 per 30-day supply and are found at retailers like Amazon, Target, and Walgreens. All of Culturell’s products include the same active ingredient, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, though their children’s line contains smaller doses.
Ultimate Flora similarly offers a line of probiotic dietary supplements in which their probiotic blend is given in smaller doses in the children’s products. For example, the children’s line offers 1, 3, and 10 billion live cultures per serving, while the adult supplements range from 15–100.
Ultimate Flora products are comparably priced at $15–$40 and available for purchase directly from their website.
You can still support your child’s gut microbiome through their diet, even if you choose to skip probiotic supplements altogether.
Probiotics occur naturally in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha. These may be challenging to introduce with a kid’s palate, however.
Yogurt and other dairy products likely provide a gentler means of introducing probiotics to your child.
Possible Side Effects
Generally speaking, serious side effects with the use of pf probiotics are rare.
Mild digestive side effects may occur and can include stomach pain, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. These symptoms are typically easy to relieve by lowering the dose or discontinuing use altogether.
For children, in particular, probiotics are well tolerated. Be mindful, however, as signs and symptoms can be challenging to discern in kids too young to communicate. Look for increased fussiness or changes in bowel habits, as described above.
Despite a low risk for harmful side effects, you should still involve a pediatrician in the decision to use probiotics. They can help you determine the underlying source of the symptoms and ensure that treatment is specifically tailored to address them.
The Bottom Line
Probiotic use continues to remain a hot topic, especially concerning use in adults. There is ample research demonstrating a variety of health benefits in adult subjects.
Many of these effects have been studied in children as well.
Currently, certain probiotics have been proven effective in treating acute infectious diarrhea, colic, irritable bowel syndrome, and food allergies. The evidence for benefits in other settings is not as strong.
The biggest takeaway is that probiotic actions are strain-specific.
This means that even strains within the same family may not deliver benefits. Thus, general use may not produce results.
For these reasons, probiotic use in children should be applied on a case by case basis. Several underlying conditions can cause their symptoms, some of which may not be addressed by probiotics.
Speak with your pediatrician to first identify the source of the symptoms, then work together to build a plan of care tailored to your child’s specific needs.