Probiotics 101

Probiotics seem to be everywhere these days and the interest grows as we learn more about these important bacteria. Indeed, the scientific community has been working to understand which strains of probiotics are beneficial for what condition, how they may improve our overall health, and which strains are beneficial to babies and toddlers.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are friendly bacteria that when consumed regularly and in the right amounts can provide a benefit to the body. Different probiotics can have different health benefits.

The gut normally contains bacteria. Gut bacteria have many important functions including the fermentation of carbohydrates which produces substances that are beneficial to the gut’s health. Gut bacteria can also help digest food, prevent potentially bad bacteria from overgrowth, and produce certain vitamins.

A baby’s gut bacteria begins to establish at birth. Breast milk is the first food that plays an important role in providing and encouraging beneficial gut bacteria. Research also indicates that babies born vaginally and put to the breast immediately after birth can benefit from the healthy bacteria from the birth canal and mom’s skin. Later, the initiation of solid foods introduces different bacteria changing the composition and quantity of a baby’s gut bacteria. A child’s gut bacteria will finally be established by about 3 years of age.

Researchers are looking at how a wide variety of healthy bacteria in our gut may impact diseases – from allergic disorders to tooth health, colic in infants and more. While there are many species and strains of probiotics, only some have been studied.

Probiotics are not “naturally” found in foods, but some foods are made using live bacteria as part of their processing. Examples include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sour pickles, kombucha, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, miso and tempeh. Probiotics are good bacteria that have proven to provide a health benefit when taken regularly. While we often see probiotics in the form of supplements, they are also sometimes added to yogurt or infant formula.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are “food” for healthy gut bacteria and include fermentable carbohydrates found in asparagus, bananas, garlic, and Jerusalem artichoke.

Can they be beneficial for my child?

Some probiotics have shown to support gut health. Keep in mind that different strains have different benefits, so make sure to inform yourself about the benefits associated to any given probiotic and talk to your doctor before offering it to your baby. Also, to benefit from probiotics your baby must consume them regularly and in the right amounts. If you are breastfeeding, your baby is already getting all the probiotics and prebiotics she needs, so there is no need to supplement unless medically indicated.

Prebiotics can help promote healthy gut bacteria. Some infant formulas contain prebiotics, but prebiotics are also naturally found in many fruits and vegetables, so offering these to your baby will help promote healthy gut bacteria.

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