Probiotics have been touted as having many benefits to general health, particularly for the digestive system. They are thought to balance the amount of “good” bacteria in the body with “bad” bacteria that can make a person sick. In children, a healthy digestive system can help boost the immune system’s ability to fight illness, and while studies are still inconclusive, many doctors recommend the use of probiotics for children in food and supplements. You should always consult with a pediatrician before introducing probiotics into a child’s diet, but the best form may be supplements rather than food.
Children can have a bacteria or flora imbalance for a number of reasons, including taking antibiotics for illness, eating a diet low in fiber that results in diarrhea, or general stress. Symptoms that may indicate a flora imbalance include allergies, acne, eczema, or digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome or Chrohn’s disease. While more studies are needed to confirm, some believe that offering probiotics to children with these issues may help them recover more quickly and boost the immune system to prevent further problems. Some doctors recommend giving probiotics to healthy children on a regular basis to maintain a healthy digestive system. Early studies have not found any major side effects to giving probiotics to children who are healthy, though more studies are needed.
The bacteria used in commercial probiotic preparations generally come from a few strains like Lactobacillus acidophilus or Saccharomyces though there are hundreds of strains which may all be beneficial. Only a few of these strains have been tested and regulated for use in food and supplements. Probiotics are usually found in fermented, unpasteurized foods like yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, pickles, sauerkraut, whey and specially formulated probiotic drinks. Pasteurized foods like yogurt that are marketed as containing probiotics actually have the organisms added back into the food. Often cooking and time can kill the number of probiotics present in foods, so it may be best to choose a supplement specifically formulated for children in order to deliver the highest number of live bacteria to the body.
When choosing supplemental probiotics for children, be sure to check the label for ingredients that may cause an allergic reaction like dairy or wheat, and try to avoid supplements with high amounts of sugar or fructose syrup whose negative effects might outweigh the benefits. Supplements should be certified by a third party for potency and purity to ensure quality. Make sure also that the supplement is stored in a refrigerator in the store or is freeze-dried to preserve the live bacteria. When ordering probiotics, be sure to ask for expedited or cold pack shipping to areas that are regularly over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) to prevent the organisms from dying in the heat.
Another important factor in choosing probiotics for children is the method of ingestion. For infants, there are probiotic formulas and supplemental powders that can be added to bottles. Breastfed infants receive beneficial bacteria through breast milk and do not need probiotic supplements until after they are weaned. For toddlers and older children, look for kid-friendly chewable tablets or flavored powders that can be added to favorite drinks and snacks. Be sure to choose probiotics for children that contain at least 5 billion colony-forming units or CFUs per serving to ensure that as many viable bacteria are ingested as possible.