In 2017, Google searches for probiotics for kids reached an all-time high.
Parents across the country are becoming more aware of the good effects of probiotics and they’re starting to wonder how beneficial they can be for their children.
In a basic sense, probiotics are good bacteria that live in our stomach and intestinal tract. While the research about probiotics is becoming more comprehensive every month, it seems, there’s still a lot we don’t know about them.
So, while they’ve become insanely popular over the past five years, they still remain a mystifying part of our health.
And if there’s one thing that parents don’t like, it’s the element of the unknown when it comes to foods and supplements that can affect their children’s health.
To help clear up the world of kids and probiotics, we talked with a pair of experts: the University of North Florida’s Dr. Andrea Arikawa and the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Dr. Krista Casazza.
We also spoke with New York-based registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto.
Though we aren’t doctors at HighYa, we do reach out to doctors to help us and you, our reader, understand a particular topic.
However, understanding what probiotics do and whether or not they’re safe and good for kids should be part a bigger process you go through to make a decision about supplements.
We always recommend and advise that you speak with your child’s pediatrician first before giving your little ones supplements and specially formulated probiotic foods.
Are Kids Born With Probiotics in Their Bellies?
The answer here is a definitive yes.
A child’s probiotics, their “gut flora,” develops and grows. At around age 3, Dr. Arikawa said, a child’s gut bacteria reach a stage where they start to resemble what your gut bacteria profile will look like in adulthood.
But, in between birth and the third year, a child’s gut bacteria is an ever-changing landscape.
The studies out there show that, when we are born, as an infant, your microbiome is highly pliable. It’s still developing and we really don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Dr. Arikawa said. “When you compare it to a seven-year-old or an adult, the population of probiotics in there is different.”
Are Probiotics Good for Kids?
Like the previous section, the answer here is: yes. There’s no question that probiotics are good for kids and for everyone else, too.
The important thing here is not to confuse “Are probiotics good for kids?” with “Are probiotic supplements good for kids?”
As you’ve probably realized, we’re all born with probiotics in our stomach and intestines, so it’s easy to see why the simple answer is yes.
Whether or not probiotic supplements are healthy is another topic, and is something we’ll talk about in the following sections. For now, though, we want to give you a quick rundown on what it is that probiotics do and why they’re so beneficial to our gut health.
We read through an awesome little document produced by the World Gastroenterology Organization (WHO) called “Probiotics and prebiotics”. It’s a 35-page document that’s part of the WGO’s global guidelines.
In it, the authors use a lot of medical terms to describe how these little guys work.
Probiotics help your stomach and intestines fight of bad sickness-causing, organisms, work together with good organisms, decrease inflammation and increase your immune system’s response to various invaders who try and sneak their way into your gut through trickery and deception.
Basically, probiotics are the middle-man between your gut and good health. Here’s how the WGO put it in their paper:
“These phenomena are thought to mediate most beneficial effects, including a reduction in the incidence and severity of diarrhea, which is one of the most widely recognized uses of probiotics.”
Are Probiotics Foods and Supplements Safe for Kids?
This is an important question, if only because parents tend to be meticulously concerned about medication and supplement dosages and don’t want to harm their kids through accidentally overmedicating them.
Take heart, parents, says Dr. Krista Casazza, a registered dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Department of Pediatrics.
If you give your child too many probiotics, the end result will most likely be gas. As bacteria work, they participate in fermentation, which, in the context of the human body, is breaking down sugars into gases and acids.
“Could something go wrong if you give them more probiotics than you should? If you did, the main manifestation would be gas, but it’s not like your kid’s going to get sick,” Casazza said.
In fact, she said, the greatest danger isn’t giving your child too many probiotics; it’s not being wise about which probiotic products you give them.
Probiotic supplements aren’t approved by the FDA, which means you need to have a game plan for vetting probiotics you find in stores or online (more on that in a few minutes).
“You just really don’t want to utilize supplements not regulated by the FDA if your child has a normal diet,” Casazza said.
How Can Parents Increase Their Child’s Probiotic Health?
Dr. Arikawa says that good probiotic health in kids starts with a good diet. There are plenty of foods that contain probiotics: yogurt is a popular one.
However, she said, it’s important not to forget that one of the best things you can do for your kids is to give them a diet rich in prebiotics, which is a scientific word that means “food for probiotics.”
Give Your Kids Vegetables and Fiber
“My view as a dietitian is that kids should be eating foods that contain probiotic bacteria, such as yogurt and foods that can stimulate the growth of the good bacteria, like foods high in fiber,” Arikawa said.
Probiotic bacteria love non-digestible carbohydrates, of which fiber is king.
“You know it’s really trying to offer the healthiest diet that they possibly can, which would mean increasing fiber intake and also trying to incorporate whole grains,” Arikawa said. “We tend to buy white bread and white rice and we really need to start going to a whole food habit. Incorporate more whole foods instead of processed foods because they don’t have a lot of nutrients required for our good gut bacteria to grow.”
She also added that high-fat diets aren’t good for your child’s gut bacteria.
“When you have a diet that is high in fat and certain types of proteins you start to kind of look at an imbalance and tip the scale to the growth of some microorganisms that might not be good for your gut,” she said.
But what about parents who want to give their kids probiotic supplements?
Well, Arikawa says, in theory, your kids shouldn’t need additional probiotics. It’s kind of like how we shouldn’t need to take vitamins if we have a healthy diet, but we do because our typical food intake may lack essential vitamins.
How to Choose The Best Probiotic for Your Child
If you’ve talked with your doctor and he or she has given you the green light to give you child or children probiotics, then Dr. Arikawa has some tips for how to choose the right ones.
1. Check for the Specific Strain of Probiotic and Expiration Date
Reading labels is key with virtually any medicine or prepackaged food, and it’s no different when it comes to probiotics.
Dr. Arikawa says it’s crucial to find out which strain of probiotic is included in the supplement.
“Probiotic supplements have specific organisms in each one,” she said. “Look for the strain. If the manufacturer doesn’t list the strain of probiotic, then it’s a little shady.”
Several of the common forms of pediatric probiotics you see are bifidum and lactobacillus. Knowing the strain is important because different strains work better for different ailments and conditions.
Also, don’t forget to look for an expiration date. Probiotics are living organisms and, like perishable food, have an expiration date.
2. Identify the CFU’s
Determining a probiotic’s potency should be as simple as identifying how many colony-forming units (CFUs) each pill or capsule has.
Dosage will change depending on the strain of bacteria found in the probiotic, so you’ll need to check with your doctor before finding the right supplement for your child.
Pro tip: Experts are still unsure about how many probiotics are included in supplements. Because they’re living things, bacteria can die during the packaging and shipping process. Therefore, CFU levels on labels may not be accurate.
3. Find the Company’s Contact Info
Another way to confirm how much you should give your child is to call the manufacturer and ask them, Dr. Arikawa said. She contacts companies often using the information given on the bottle’s packaging.
If a probiotic doesn’t have an address or phone number for the manufacturer, steer clear, she said.
4. Choose Kid Probiotics That Have Been Tested
When we asked Dr. Arikawa about specific brands of probiotics that are good for kids, all the recommendations she gave us had research behind them.
Some of the names she mentioned were:
- Culturell: Comes in chewable tablets and powder form
- BioGaia: “It’s been extensively tested for colic, diarrhea and regurgitation.”
- VSL #3: “Been tested and used a lot in research.”
- Florastor (yeast): “It’s the only yeast that’s been extensively tested.”
Based on what Dr. Arikawa said, we think it’s a good idea only to deal with probiotics you can inspect at a store. Online products can be tempting but what you see online doesn’t always mean it’s what you’ll get in your hands.
5. Breast Milk is an Excellent Source of Probiotics
We’ve mentioned that vegetables and whole grains are great for kids because they feed probiotics. Actual probiotic supplements are an option if your doctor recommends them; make sure you know the strain, CFU’s and manufacturer’s information.
The final option for achieving good probiotics in your child’s gut is to feed them breast milk when they’re young.
“There is some data that breastfeeding definitely is the first thing that you can do from when your baby is born,” Dr. Arikawa said. “Breast milk has a lot of the natural probiotic bacteria, like lactobacillus. They’re so important for getting a healthy gut profile in a child.”
For mothers who can’t breastfeed or choose not to, Dr. Arikawa said there are formulas that have probiotic bacteria in them. In that situation, it may be a good idea to supplement the formula with more probiotics.
“In this case, I think it is a good idea to supplement with probiotics to make sure babies are receiving the probiotic bacteria that is naturally present in breast milk,” she said.
But be careful; the high temperatures needed to sterilize water and properly mix the formula may kill the good bacteria.
“One way to get around that would be to mix the formula per instructions and add the probiotic supplement to the formula after it has cooled down to 100 Fahrenheit or so.”
Myths About Probiotics for Kids
Based on our research of hundreds of different health products, we’ve learned that popular supplements tend to ride a wave of information that’s part fact, part myth.
The same is true for probiotics. Parents across the United States are buying into kid probiotics for many reasons and some of those reasons, Dr. Casazza said, are just plain false.
Myth 1: Probiotics Can Help Kids Lose Weight
This myth is a tricky one because it’s true, but not in the way you think. Pounding a couple of Culturell isn’t magic. Your child won’t automatically lose weight because of the pill.
Rather, Casazza said, your choice to build a healthy gut in your child will have a profound impact on your child’s metabolism.
You see, your brain and your stomach are in constant communication via neurotransmitters, which are like little highways on which messages travel.
Through of this communication system, your brain and stomach work together to regulate how quickly your body breaks down food, how nutrients are absorbed and other things. This ongoing conversation between brain and stomach is what is known as “bidirectional communication.”
So, when a child’s stomach is in good working order as the result of a healthy diet, then your brain can regulate your body’s digestive process and metabolism in a way that reduces the risk of diabetes and obesity. This is what Casazza calls a “good metabolic profile.”
“With poor gut health, those neurotransmitters get dysregulated and that affects the bidirectional communication and metabolism,” she said. “Good gut health, on the other hand, brings about a good metabolic profile.”
Myth 2: Kids Need Probiotics Supplements
Do you remember earlier in this article when we said there was a difference between probiotics and probiotic supplements?
Well, our bodies need probiotics, but that’s a given since we’ve already got them. So, should we give our kids extra probiotics to promote extra probiotic health?
Dr. Casazza says no, not for healthy kids with normal diets.
“It’s not necessary unless there is an issue with the diet or the child is overweight, obese or has gestational diabetes,” Casazza said. “Then, in fact, it may be beneficial.”
Again, probiotics supplements aren’t a magic pill that will help your child lose weight. They need to be paired with a healthy diet and, interestingly enough, exercise, which Casazza says can help your gut bacteria function at a normal level.
Pro tip: Always check with your doctor to make sure probiotics are the best choice for your child.
Myth 3: Probiotics Cure Colic
Colic can drive parents crazy and, over the past few years, research has shown that probiotics may help ease the symptoms of colic. However, says Vanessa Rissetto, a registered dietitian based in New York, they aren’t a cure.
“Probiotics are said to cure colic – however, the verdict is still out,” Rissetto said. “Some studies show that those babies given probiotics cried half the time than those that did not. Other studies dispute that. It’s not clear why there are discrepancies in the findings.”
Summing It Up: Healthy Kids Don’t Need Extra Probiotics
After spending about 20 minutes talking with Dr. Casazza about some pretty heady scientific stuff as well as practical advice about probiotics and kids, we started to get a full picture of what it takes to build good gut health in kids: a diet of fruits, vegetables and fiber, and exercise.
When we said that parents might get frustrated that the key to good gut health is the same old “good diet and exercise” answer, Casazza chuckled, then went right back into doctor mode.
“If you aren’t going to give your kids an adequate, healthy diet and adequate nutrients, then probiotics will help attenuate the bad effects, but you won’t get the full benefits of the probiotics because of that bad diet,” she said.
Based on what we heard from both doctors, promoting gut health starts with a good diet. Breastfeeding also helps because a newborn’s gut profile is flexible and growing.
As the child gets older, diet is even more crucial to gut health because it starts to influence the way your brain and stomach communicate.
High-fat diets packed with processed foods can hamper that communication and, Dr. Casazza pointed out, lead to some health problems down the line.
Adding extra probiotics to an infant’s diet may help with colic but it’s not a sure thing.
And what should parents do with all the probiotic information floating around on the internet? Stick with the reliable sources, Casazza said.
“The best user-friendly site is the American Nutrition and Dietetics Association,” she said. “It’s all evidence-based and produced by registered dietitians.”
You can also check out our series on probiotics. We cover all the basics of:
- How to choose a good probiotic
- Their benefits and how they work
- If probiotics are safe and when to take them
- Whether or not they help you lose weight