Probiotics For Babies: What Parents Need To Know

What are probiotics, and are they safe for your baby? Can probiotics help treat your baby's colic, GI conditions, or eczema? Here's what parents need to know about probiotics for babies.

If you have a colicky baby, a baby with GI issues, or even a baby with eczema, you may have heard of probiotics as a possible treatment. But what are probiotics, and are they safe for your baby? Are they an effective way to treat these and other conditions? Results look mixed for now, and more studies are needed, but some studies' results show promise. Here's what parents need to know about probiotics for babies.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts. The most common probiotics are live bacteria, which are often called "good bacteria." Unlike "bad" bacteria, which can cause diseases, probiotics are not harmful to the body. Rather, probiotics are intended to provide health benefits when you consume them. Usually, probiotics will live in the gut and help build or restore the natural balance of gut bacteria, which aids in digestion and proper GI function.

In babies, probiotics have been used to treat colic, GI issues, and eczema, although more research is needed to determine if they are truly effective treatments.

"Probiotics" is a very wide term--- there are many different types of probiotics.

As the Murdoch Children's Research Institute explains, the term "probiotics" is like the term "dogs." There are many breeds of dogs, but all are the same kind of animal, and there are many strains of probiotics, but all are classified in the same category.

Just like each breed of dog has a different appearance and personality, different types of probiotics also behave in different ways. Each individual strain of probiotic has different functions and benefits for the body. So, no one probiotic will properly treat every condition that probiotics may be beneficial for. One probiotic may be helpful for eczema, for example, but not for treating colic. Now, let's look at some of the common types of probiotics.

Types and Groups Of Probiotics

Probiotics can be divided into different groups. Some common groups of probiotics are:

  • Lactobacillus (bacteria)
  • Bifidobacterium (bacteria)
  • Streptococcus (bacteria)
  • Saccharomyces (yeasts)

The most common types of probiotics are from the lactobacillus group. Lactobacillus bacteria are naturally found in yogurt and some other dairy products, but they are also available individually as supplements.

Not all lactobacillus bacteria behave exactly the same, even though they're all called lactobacillus. There are many types of lactobacillus, and each has a different function.

Some types of lactobacillus include:

  • Lactobacillus paracasei
  • Lactobacillus fermentum
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
  • Lactobacillus reuteri

Another common type of probiotic is the bifidobacterium group. Bifidobacteria naturally live and grow in people's GI tracts, but they also appear in supplements. These bacteria help with digestion and fight against harmful types of bacteria.

Some types of bifidobacteria include:

  • Bifidobacterium infantis
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum

Why Probiotics for Babies?

Why might doctors recommend probiotics for baby? The answer involves the gut (also called the GI tract).

Gut health is vital for baby's future well-being. Having enough good bacteria in the gut in infancy helps build up baby's immune and digestive systems, and thus lays the foundation for a healthy life.

Babies aren't born with all the good bacteria they need in the gut, though. Their GI tract starts out weaker, so they're more susceptible to infections and GI conditions (such as colic or reflux). But as babies drink breastmilk or formula, and later start to eat food, this naturally builds up the needed gut bacteria. Probiotic supplements can help build up, or restore, the good bacteria in the GI tract.

If your baby must be treated with an antibiotic for any reason, probiotics are also vital for restoring the balance of good bacteria in baby's gut, after the round of antibiotics is complete. This is because antibiotics kill off both good and bad gut bacteria.

Babies and toddlers are likely to benefit from Bifidobacterium infantis and Bifidobacterium bifidum. These are the first types of bacteria to colonize naturally in the gut. They help build immunity, and help fight off bad bacteria.

Are probiotics safe for baby?

Current research indicates that probiotics are safe for baby to consume, as long as baby is healthy. Even babies born prematurely, and babies with a low birth weight, have tolerated probiotics well. Still, more research is needed to fully confirm this.

Probiotics may cause side effects, though, so they aren't without risk. Some probiotics may cause stomach pain, diarrhea, gas and bloating, so there's a chance that they may make GI problems worse.

Probiotics, Colic and GI Issues

How effective are probiotics for babies? The evidence is mixed, at least for now--- and much more research is needed.

We don't have enough information to confirm which probiotic strains work best to treat certain conditions in babies, how much of each probiotic works best to treat a condition, and when in a baby's life is the best time to give a certain probiotic.

There are also no official approved doses of probiotics for babies at this time, so doses are at each doctor's discretion.

Even so, the results of some recent clinical studies show promise. Here's a brief overview of current research on probiotics, colic, and GI issues. Most studies of note involved lactobacillus reuteri:

  • A 2010 study showed that lactobacillus reuteri safely and effectively reduced colicky crying in exclusively breastfed infants. Babies were given five drops of either the liquid probiotic supplement or a placebo for 21 days, always 30 minutes prior to feeding. This was the first randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study to show that a probiotic may help with colic.
  • A 2014 randomized controlled study showed that lactobacillus reuteri, when given in the first three months of life, reduced the risk of infant colic, gastrointestinal reflux, and constipation, and reduced crying time.
  • But results are mixed. Another 2014 study examined both breastfed and formula-fed infants with existing colic, all under 3 months of age. In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, the babies either took lactobacillus reuteri supplements or a placebo. The probiotic supplements did not lessen babies' crying periods in this study.

Probiotics and Baby Eczema

We've previously published a guide on probiotics for baby eczema, including an overview of relevant clinical studies.

Like with other conditions, more research is needed on using probiotics for baby eczema. Still, existing research looks promising.

Please read our guide to probiotics and baby eczema here.

Preparing and Giving Baby Probiotics

Despite current research that indicates probiotics are safe, more research is needed to fully understand their risks and benefits. Only give your baby probiotic supplements after talking to your doctor. Also, be sure to ask your doctor about specific probiotic strains, since all probiotics are different. Your doctor will tell you what dose of probiotic you should give to baby, and how often baby should consume the probiotic.

After you have your doctor's okay, how should you administer a probiotic supplement?

Probiotics can come in powder or liquid form. You can mix both types with baby's bottle of breastmilk or formula, or add either type to applesauce or yogurt (or any cold food). You can also place drops of the liquid probiotic directly on baby's tongue.

Never add probiotics to hot liquids or foods--- this will kill off the good bacteria, and destroy any benefit of the probiotic!

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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.