Most parents have heard of probiotics and prebiotics and may
wonder whether these supplements hold the key to optimum health for
their children. The answer: Much of the information so far is
promising, but a lot more needs to be gathered before doctors can
agree with the popular media about the amazing claims made about
To understand all the fuss, we need to take a short tour through
the body. Bacteria live with us from the moment we enter the world
until the day we die, and even after that. The richest population
of bacteria is inside our intestines, with up to 500 different
species and trillions (I am not exaggerating) of individual
bacteria living in the large intestine of an average adult. At
birth the intestines are sterile, but by 48 hours old, babies have
a substantial amount of bacteria in their intestines. These
bacteria, intestinal "flora," are critical to digestion, aid in the
development of parts of the immune system, and contribute to good
Probiotics are supplements that contain specific kinds of
bacteria intended to change the flora in the intestines and improve
health. Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Growing evidence
suggests taking probiotics as a supplement or within food may
prevent certain illnesses.
Human milk, which is a natural prebiotic and may also contain
naturally occurring probiotics, is considered the healthiest diet
for babies under 6 months old. Studies evaluating supplemental
probiotics in infants have shown a decrease in the duration of
diarrhea by one day when given early in the course of a viral
gastroenteritis ("stomach flu") and they may help prevent
antibiotic-associated diarrhea, reduce the incidence of colic and
prevent cold symptoms. More evidence is needed, but probiotics may
help decrease allergic diseases in childhood when given to pregnant
moms and continued in the baby for six months after birth.
Some infant formulas are now supplemented with probiotics. These
formulas are not harmful, but they have not been proven to be any
healthier than formulas without probiotics. So far, there is not
good evidence for the long-term use of probiotics in treating
disorders such as Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and
Knowing some of these benefits may make it tempting to assume
every child should take probiotics/prebiotics, but it's too soon to
make that recommendation. More evidence needs to be gathered about
the long-term impact and questions remain about the proper amount,
species and duration of use.
It's important to note that probiotics can be dangerous in those
with disorders of the immune system and ill preterm babies. Parents
who want to add probiotics/prebiotics to their child's diet should
discuss their child's specific needs with their pediatrician.
Editor's note: This column is intended as information only.
It is not medical advice.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of
pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and
LaRabida Children's Hospital. She also is assistant professor of
pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at [email protected].
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.
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