What are prebiotics for babies?

What are prebiotics? What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics? How are they related to each other? How do both of them help your baby’s gut health? Today, we’ll cover what parents need to know about prebiotics, including how to incorporate them into your baby’s diet.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are the food source for certain “good bacteria,” live bacteria that live in the GI tract and help promote a healthy gut.

Some types of prebiotics include inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides, (FOS), and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS).

Usually, prebiotics are in the form of fibers that are very hard to digest. Our digestive systems can’t break down the prebiotics on its own. But the “good bacteria” in the GI tract are able to break down the prebiotics and feed on them.

The “good bacteria” break down food, help stop inflammation, and promote a healthy immune system and digestive system. Prebiotics are key to helping these good bacteria survive, grow, and thrive, so the GI tract stays healthy.

Prebiotics vs. probiotics

One category of “good bacteria” is known as probiotics. Probiotics are live bacteria. They don’t naturally occur in foods, but they are added to foods like yogurt as part of processing. They can also be taken as supplements.

There are many types of probiotics, all with different functions. Some support the immune system, and others promote digestive health. But most probiotics live in the gut, and help build, sustain, or restore the natural balance of helpful GI tract bacteria.

(For everything you need to know about probiotics for babies, don’t miss our probiotics guide.)

What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics? How are the two related?

  • Probiotics are good bacteria. Prebiotics are not bacteria, but “good bacteria” need to feed on prebiotics.
  • Probiotics use prebiotics as their food source.
  • To properly benefit the body, probiotics must feed on enough prebiotics.

Why do babies need prebiotics and probiotics?

Some of the “good bacteria” --- the bacteria that prebiotics sustain --- naturally grow in the gut. But babies aren't born with all the “good bacteria” they need in the gut. This puts them at risk for colic, reflux, and other GI conditions. It also puts them at higher risk for infections.

But when baby builds up enough good bacteria in the gut, this helps strengthen their digestive and immune systems, and thus lays the foundation for a healthy life.

How to accomplish this? Baby needs to drink breastmilk or a formula with probiotics, and later eat foods that contain probiotics, to help enough “good bacteria” build up in their gut. And to help sustain these probiotics and other “good bacteria,” they’ll need to consume foods with prebiotics.

Besides promoting the healthy growth of “good bacteria,” some studies have shown that prebiotics have even more benefits. Certain prebiotics may help baby produce healthy stools, and others may even benefit the immune system.

Prebiotics and probiotics may also be helpful for treating baby eczema. Although research in this area is limited, recent findings look promising.

Prebiotics in your baby’s diet

How to make sure baby gets enough prebiotics to sustain healthy gut bacteria? Here’s how to incorporate prebiotics into your baby’s diet.

Prebiotics in breastmilk

In addition to countless other benefits for your baby, breastmilk contains both prebiotics and probiotics. This means that breastmilk both helps build up “good bacteria” in baby’s gut and provides plenty of the nutrients needed to sustain the “good bacteria.” In fact, prebiotics are actually the third-largest component in breastmilk. Prebiotic and probiotic levels in breastmilk vary depending on the mother, and depending on the baby’s lactation needs.

Prebiotics in formula

Many formulas already contain probiotics, to mimic breastmilk and help build up “good bacteria” in baby’s gut. And to replicate the benefits of breastmilk even further, and give the healthy gut bacteria the nutrients it needs to survive, some formulas also contain prebiotics. No formula exactly replicates the prebiotics in breastmilk, but formulas with prebiotics still help sustain the gut bacteria effectively.

If you plan to select a formula with probiotics and prebiotics, read the label carefully, because not all formulas are enriched with them. If you choose a different type of formula that doesn’t contain them, another option is to use infant drops that contain probiotics and prebiotics.

Prebiotics in food

Once your little one is ready for solid food, it’s vital that you include prebiotic-rich foods in their diet, to help sustain their gut bacteria. Usually, foods rich in prebiotics are rich in fiber.

These are some prebiotic-rich foods that you could feed to baby:

  • Bananas, especially under-ripe ones
  • Oats
  • Asparagus (cooked)
  • Onions (cooked)
  • Garlic
  • Leeks (cooked)
  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Whole grains
  • Blueberries (mashed)
  • Apples (cooked)
  • Dark, leafy greens, like spinach

To reduce the risk of choking, remember to cook hard fruits and vegetables to soften them before feeding them to baby.

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All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  If your infant has severe eczema, check with your infant’s healthcare provider before feeding foods containing ground peanuts.