The issue of whether or not it’s necessary to supplement your child’s diet with a probiotic is a complex question and one that is still subject to considerable amounts of scientific research. The fact that there are so many fortified products out there, and the fact that our paediatricians prescribe them as supplements, makes it seem like they are an essential part of our children’s diets. Is it really necessary though?
Here we give you everything you need to know to make up your own mind.
Some Basic Facts:
- Probiotics are simply the good bacteria that live in our digestive tract
- We have more than 100-300 TRILLION bacteria in our bodies
- This is made up of over 500 species
- They weigh up to 3.5lbs
- They account for 75% of our immune systems 
- Modern science is currently only familiar with a few such as Lactobacilloius spp. and Bifidobacterium spp, and there is scientific evidence of the health benefits of these  
- Our digestive tract is unique to ourselves, like fingerprints. No two people will have the same mix.
Researchers are studying probiotics and their effect on a grab bag of conditions such as inflammatory bowel diseases, stomach ulcers, allergies, eczema, UTIs, vaginal infections, colds, flus, ear infections, bladder cancer, tooth decay and even high cholesterol and blood pressure, so it’s well worth taking them seriously.
SO, IS THERE A NEED TO SUPPLEMENT NATURE?
To answer this, it helps to look at the way a child’s gut bacteria develops:
1. BIRTH: Baby’s first dose of Probiotics
The body does not make good bacteria, we get it from our mothers the moment we are born. A mother’s uterus is a sterile and bacteria-free environment and the colon of a fetus is empty and devoid of bacteria just before birth. As the baby passes through the birth canal, it will quickly absorb good bacteria through the skin and mouth. This is Mother Nature issuing her first dose of probiotics. At this point it’s mainly Lactobacilli and other lactic acid-producing bacteria which will help the baby breakdown lactose; the major sugar in milk to make energy.
2. THE FIRST DAYS OF LIFE: The evolution of a healthy gut community
Once the baby has safely arrived in the big wide world, the first dose of bacteria will begin to colonise and continue to build its own family and community in the gut. The process continues via skin-to-skin contact from mother to baby and through the initial feeds of colostrum and ongoing breastfeeding. As time goes on, the types of probiotic received increases via the mother and environment to include those such as Bifidobacterium Infantis and all the types that enable the baby to function independently, breakdown nutrients and build immunity.
3. BABY TO TODDLER – A set up for life
Scientists consider that by the age of 3, the good bacteria in a child’s gut becomes stable and similar to that of an adult. It then continues its evolution at a steadier rate throughout life.
So, in an ideal situation, where a child is delivered vaginally and breastfed, there should be little need for any supplementary probiotics as the best form in the world is customised and given by the mother. We all know however, that situations are not always ideal and are often out of our control. In addition, a mother may deliver naturally and have a vaginal infection or may not be eating an optimal diet to deliver the full benefits of breastfeeding.
What happens when things don’t go exactly as nature intended?
Obviously, when a baby is delivered via Caesarian Section, the journey through the birth canal and hence, the exposure to the immunising opportunity is missed. The baby’s system needs to catch up and therefore the baby can be vulnerable to certain infections.
In a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers led by Anita Kozyrskyj found that babies born by C-section harboured a different set of microbes in their digestive tracts than those born vaginally. According to “Probiotics” by Naturopath Dr Casey Adams , 60% of vaginal births will give infants their first probiotic inoculation of Bifidus Infantis vs only 1% of Caesarian births.
Breastfeeding also plays a key role as breast milk contains substances known as PREBIOTICS that promote the growth of healthy bugs. This is especially key for babies born by C-section. They supply nutrients to the living bacteria, which help them to survive. Formula-fed babies have a different recipe of bacteria in their guts. This is evident from the marked differences in poop between the two methods of feeding.
As mentioned, the process of bringing a child into the world is not always textbook smooth, with much of it out of the mother’s direct control. These are simply those occasions when supplementary probiotics for the mother or child should be considered.
The role of ANTI-biotics
However a baby enters the world and however it is fed, before the age of 2, it will certainly get sick at some point. The immune system is still developing. In the modern world, we are very quick to turn to antibiotics to help our children fight infection more quickly.
The trouble is, antibiotics do not only kill the infection, they also kill both bad and good bacteria in your child's gut flora which can lead to gastrointestinal distress. "About 20 to 30 percent of kids develop diarrhoea when they take antibiotics," says Daniel Merenstein, M.D., director of research in the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, in Washington, D.C.
By altering the gut microbiota, and thus the immune system very early in life, antibiotics could negatively influence long-term health, particularly by boosting the risk of developing asthma, allergy, and obesity etc. 
CONSIDERATIONS WHEN DECIDING WHETHER TO SUPPLEMENT
When you consider literally how much bacteria is in a gut along with the fact that we are all unique, the use of supplementary probiotics becomes very complex. On top of this, we have seen that even in vaginal births, only 60% of babies receive the bacteria nature intended. A mother’s bacteria may be abnormal or there may be unknown infections.
So, to summarise, in the following situations, a baby’s good bacteria may not be optimal and hence a supplement is worth considering:
- Where the mother is exposed to vaginal infections, candida, allergy, leaky gut during pregnancy.
- For breastfeeding mothers of babies delivered by C-section.
- For formula-fed babies up to 12 months of age and if the baby is suffering from colic, diarrhoea or constipation.
- For babies with allergy symptoms such as asthma, eczema.
- Whenever an antibiotic is used it is key to supplement with a probiotic once the course is complete.
Choosing a Probiotic
Each probiotic in the market is quite different in its strain and strength and it can be hard to know which to choose. In most cases, I recommend a variety strain with a higher strength. This is because a single strain of good bacteria can only carry out a single task. It’s impossible to isolate the single one you need; the more you can take in, the more likely it is to help.
Natural ways of optimising your child’s good bacteria
Of course, the most sustainable way of increasing the good bacteria in our children is to eat healthily. Here are some other bacteria-boosting tips:
- Avoid giving baby unnecessary antibiotics. Again, if antibiotics are required, probiotics should follow.
- Pregnant mothers should aim to eat some fermented food that is naturally high in good bacteria with each meal, to ensure the body has good quality of the flora when giving birth. Those foods include yogurt with lactobacillius (not all yogurts are the same), kombucha, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi.
- Don’t forget prebiotic food. This is food such as fibrous green vegetables and fruit that feed good bacteria and promotes their growth.
- Eat and feed your children less processed food that will swab away good bacteria in your gut leaving behind the bad.
Finally, while probiotics in general are considered safe, remember that nothing is risk free. If there is any doubt about the appropriate use of probiotics, request advice from a health professional such as a registered dietician, pharmacist or physician.
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- Brenner DM, Moeller MJ, Chey WD, Schoenfeld PS; Moeller; Chey; Schoenfeld (April 2009). "The utility of probiotics in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review". Am J Gastroenterol 104 (4): 1033–49; quiz 1050. doi:10.1038/ajg.2009.25.PMID 19277023.
- Engelbrektson A, Korzenik JR, Pittler A, Sanders ME, Klaenhammer TR, Leyer G, Kitts CL; Korzenik; Pittler; Sanders; Klaenhammer; Leyer; Kitts (2009). "Probiotics to minimize the disruption of faecal microbiota in healthy subjects undergoing antibiotic therapy". J. Med. Microbiol. 58 (Pt 5): 663–70. doi:10.1099/jmm.0.47615-0. PMID 19369530.
- Adams Ph.D., Casey (2009). Probiotics – Protection Against Infection: Using Nature’s Tiny Warriors To Stem Infection and Fight Disease. Logical Books.
- F. Fouhy, C.M. Guinane, S. Hussey, R. Wall, C.A. Ryan, E.M. Dempsey, B. Murphy, R.P. Ross, G.F. Fitzgerald, C. Stanton, and P.D. Cotter, 2012. High-throughput sequencing reveals the incomplete, short-term recovery of infant gut microbiota following parenteral antibiotic treatment with ampicillin and gentamicin. Antim. Agents Chemother. 56:5811-5820.