Do Babies Need Probiotics? Understanding Their Benefits

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Summary

Our gut health report gives you deep insights into your baby's gut health. See a sample
Our gut health report gives you deep insights into your baby's gut health. See a sample

As parents, we all want to give our babies the healthiest start possible. One of the best ways to do so is by optimizing gut and vaginal microbiome health starting in pregnancy (or even before), and then supporting baby’s microbiome in the first 1000 days of life. 

But what’s the best way to support the gut microbiome? Do babies need probiotics? Can I give my baby probiotics?

Some specific strains of probiotics can help.  But, like much of parenting, knowing which probiotic to choose can be confusing and overwhelming. We’re here to help take the mystery out of baby probiotics so that you can make the best choice for yourself and your family.

What do probiotics do for babies?

First things first, probiotics are defined as live microorganisms that benefit health when administered in adequate amounts [1]. You can find probiotics in multiple forms, such as pills and liquid formulations. They also occur naturally in delicious fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and others.

Probiotics can contribute to a baby's health in many ways including boosting immune function, producing essential vitamins, helping to digest food, and hampering the growth of unfriendly bacteria. Studies have shown that probiotics are both safe and effective for babies, especially in certain circumstances.

Why use a baby probiotic?

We can’t talk about probiotics without first understanding the importance of the baby gut microbiome. As you’ve likely heard, the gut microbiome is an important factor for immune development and a baby’s overall well-being. The development of a healthy gut microbiota begins with a baby's exposure to microbes during birth and continues over the first two years of life [2], [3].

Many factors can influence your baby's gut microbiome development [2], [3], including, but not limited to:

In these very early stages, the gut microbiome of a healthy, vaginally delivered, breastfed baby is characterized by a high diversity of Bifidobacterium species. 

These beneficial species can digest human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), which are special sugars found in breastmilk. And while these tiny bacteria are feasting and enjoying the HMOs, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that protect against inflammation and help maintain a baby’s gut barrier [4], [5], [6].

How to choose the best infant probiotic

Probiotics are possibly one of the best supplements that you can take yourself or give to your baby. Supplementing with beneficial bacteria can support the development of your baby’s gut microbiome and play a pivotal role in the development of gut and immune health.

When shopping for the best baby probiotic, look for those that are backed by research and have the strain names in their label. Another good rule of thumb is to look for products containing bacteria from the genus Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. These beneficial bacteria are the most researched and can support your baby’s gut development.

Bifidobacterium

Bifidobacterium are one of the most important gut species for your baby. Using a Bifidobacterium probiotic will not only benefit your baby’s overall health [4], [5], but some of these species have also been shown to colonize the baby gut, supporting health for a longer period [6]. 

Bifidobacterium can easily colonize the baby gut because it’s not yet mature. This means more space, less competition, and more food, such as HMOs for bacteria to consume.

But not all Bifidobacterium are equally beneficial.

For example, Bifidobacterium infantis can use all types of HMOs as a food source [7]. Other species, such as Bifidobacterium bifidum and Bifidobacterium breve, can use only some HMOs [7]. This gives B. infantis a competitive advantage to colonizing the baby gut and supporting health.

Lactobacillus

Baby probiotics belonging to the Lactobacillus genus will most likely not colonize your baby’s gut, but that’s not a bad thing. Not all probiotic bacteria are required to stick around to benefit health. In adults, for instance, Lactobacillus probiotics are mostly transient species, meaning they do not colonize the gut. Likewise, most probiotics designed for babies will benefit your baby by quickly passing through. During this time, they can support immune health and fight harmful microbes in the gut environment.

Keep in mind that both strain and person-specific persistence may also exist. In other words,  different probiotics have a unique effect on each one of us.

When to consider giving probiotics to your baby

Each baby has a different gut type and the first 1000 days are critical in setting up the microbiome and preventing chronic illness for a lifetime. You may want to consider giving probiotics to your baby for the following reasons:

1. Your baby was born via C-section

Something that we’re really just beginning to understand is how a baby’s first exposure to microbes shapes gut and immune development.

During vaginal delivery, babies are exposed to a mother’s vaginal and fecal microbes, which then colonize the baby’s gut with beneficial bacteria. On the other hand, babies born via C-section, are colonized instead with microbes from a mother’s skin, mouth, and the surrounding environment. Some of these bacteria may be harmful [8] so adding a probiotic can help add some strains that were missed in the birthing process.

2. Your baby has low levels of essential bacteria, like Bifidobacterium

You may want to consider giving probiotics to your newborn to increase low levels of beneficial gut bacteria, like Bifidobacterium. As described above, Bifidobacterium are essential for the use and benefits of HMOs [4].

Many baby probiotics contain well-studied and clinically tested Bifidobacterium species. Taking a product like this might help to increase the levels of beneficial bacteria in your baby’s gut. 

Look especially for products that contain B. infantis, B. bifidum, and B. breve, since these species use HMOs and support baby microbiome development by stopping the growth of unfriendly microbes [4], [7].

You may be wondering—how do you know if your baby has low levels of Bifidobacterium? Great question! The best way to find out is with a baby gut health test which looks at each species of bacteria in the gut and gives actionable guidance on dietary, supplement, and lifestyle recommendations to optimize gut health. 

3. When your baby is prescribed antibiotics

Antibiotics kill both disruptive and beneficial gut bacteria, which can lead to gut imbalances. 

Changes in the microbiome after antibiotic use can last for months. When it comes to early life exposure to antibiotics, the effects can be even more dramatic. For example, antibiotic use in a baby can lead to long-lasting changes in the gut microbiome that impact health later in life [9].

We recommend you start giving an infant probiotic to your baby the first day you start with antibiotic treatment. Continue during the entire course of antibiotic treatment and for at least two weeks post-antibiotics. 

4. When your baby has digestive troubles such as colic, diarrhea, and gas 

Certain probiotics have been shown to help with colic in newborn babies along with other digestive troubles such as diarrhea and constipation [10], [11]. 

5. When your baby has eczema or diaper rash

During their very first months of life, many newborn babies suffer from eczema. It’s been shown that the symptoms of eczema can be relieved by giving your baby certain probiotics, which can steer gut microbiome development and reduce inflammation [12], [13]Probiotics can even help with diaper rash, a condition often caused by yeast in babies [10].

How to select the best probiotic product

Probiotics can be one of the most important interventions for a baby’s health. But with so many products available, it isn't always easy to find the best probiotic.

To help navigate market shelves, our scientists have created a checklist of questions to ask yourself when selecting a product. This includes looking for a product that is specific to your needs, that is backed by research, and that states all the necessary information on its label.

The bottom line on baby probiotics

Probiotics can be a great way to boost your baby's gut microbiome since they contain beneficial Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species. The best way to find out which probiotic your baby may need is with a Baby Gut Health Test which detects bacteria present in the gut and gives actionable guidance on dietary, supplement, and lifestyle recommendations to optimize your little one’s health for a lifetime. 

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References

[1] Hill, Colin, et al. "Expert consensus document: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic." Nature reviews Gastroenterology & hepatology (2014).

[2] MLARobertson, Ruairi C., et al. "The human microbiome and child growth–first 1000 days and beyond." Trends in Microbiology27.2 (2019): 131-147.

[3] Selma-Royo, Marta, et al. "Shaping microbiota during the first 1000 days of life." Probiotics and Child Gastrointestinal Health(2019): 3-24.

[4] Fukuda, Shinji, et al. "Bifidobacteria can protect from enteropathogenic infection through production of acetate." Nature 469.7331 (2011): 543-547.

[5] O'Neill, Ian, Zoe Schofield, and Lindsay J. Hall. "Exploring the role of the microbiota member Bifidobacterium in modulating immune-linked diseases." Emerging Topics in Life Sciences1.4 (2017): 333-349.

[6] Frese, Steven A., et al. "Persistence of supplemented Bifidobacterium longum subsp. infantis EVC001 in breastfed infants." MSphere 2.6 (2017): e00501-17.

[7] Turroni, Francesca, et al. "Glycan utilization and cross-feeding activities by bifidobacteria." Trends in microbiology 26.4 (2018): 339-350.

[8] Dominguez-Bello, Maria G., et al. "Delivery mode shapes the acquisition and structure of the initial microbiota across multiple body habitats in newborns." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.26 (2010): 11971-11975.

[9] Aires, Julio. "First 1000 Days of Life: Consequences of Antibiotics on Gut Microbiota." Frontiers in Microbiology 12 (2021): 1264.

[10] Dimitratos, S. M., et al. "Symptomatic relief from at-home use of activated Bifidobacterium infantis EVC001 probiotic in infants: results from a consumer survey on the effects on diaper rash, colic symptoms, and sleep." Beneficial Microbes(2021): 1-8.

[11] Szajewska, Hania, Ewa Gyrczuk, and Andrea Horvath. "Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 for the management of infantile colic in breastfed infants: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial." The Journal of pediatrics 162.2 (2013): 257-262.

[12] Kalliomäki, Marko, et al. "Probiotics in primary prevention of atopic disease: a randomised placebo-controlled trial." The Lancet 357.9262 (2001): 1076-1079.

[13] Durack, Juliana, et al. "Delayed gut microbiota development in high-risk for asthma infants is temporarily modifiable by Lactobacillus supplementation." Nature communications 9.1 (2018): 1-9.