Growing research suggests that the “good” bacteria in probiotic supplements and live-culture yogurts may offer certain health benefits to adults. Now manufacturers are pitching them to kids, too. Dannon, for example, has introduced Danimals, a child-friendly, probiotic-fortified yogurt. Some supplement makers now offer probiotic pills designed especially for young children and teenagers. And Nestlé even came out with a yogurt-based infant formula. Should you give them to your child?
Friendly bacteria normally reside in the gut, where they help break down foods and drugs and keep disease-causing bugs in check. Antibiotics and certain gastrointestinal illnesses can trigger diarrhea by killing off or overwhelming those good bugs.
Several studies now suggest that infants on antibiotics or suffering from diarrhea may get some relief when they’re fed yogurt-based formulas with specific probiotic strains, and that older children may get similar benefits from probiotic pills. Other evidence hints that probiotics help treat several common childhood conditions, including eczema, respiratory infections, and food allergies.
But all that evidence is preliminary, and it needs confirmation from larger, better-designed trials. And while probiotics appear safe for most people, they may pose a risk of infection, especially in people with weakened immunity, infants, and children with short-bowel syndrome or other chronic disorders.
What you should do
Breast-feeding remains the best option for infants. Breast milk contains a mix of carbohydrates, amino acids, fatty acids, hormones, immunity-enhancing antibodies, and assorted vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that help infants develop and maintain a healthy colony of good bugs in their intestinal tract. If you don’t breast-feed, or want to supplement breast-feeding with formula, don’t try probiotic-fortified formula without first carefully discussing the issue with your baby’s pediatrician.
Older kids generally don’t need supplemental probiotics either, provided they eat a diet rich in whole grains and produce. Those foods, like breast milk, help promote the growth of good bacteria. But there’s no reason why you can’t include some live-culture yogurt in your toddler’s or older child’s diet. You may especially want to offer it to them when they are on antibiotics or suffer from diarrhea. Probiotic pills are probably also safe and possibly helpful in those circumstances, but it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor first.
Yogurt that contains the potentially beneficial bacteria generally will bear the National Yogurt Association’s Live & Active Cultures seal. If your doctor says pills are OK for your kid, look for those containing at least 1 billion units per serving of the most often-studied strains, including Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. —Marilynn Larkin
CR’s Take: The friendly bacteria in yogurt may soothe a child’s digestive problems, but consult your doctor before giving supplements to a child or using yogurt-based infant formula.