We've already explored the role of probiotics in supporting immunity and infections.
These benefits are also relevant to children. In fact, probiotics may perform a supportive role in the health of young children.
Reminder: what are probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that inhabit the digestive tract. They aid digestion, stimulate immunity and help to keep potentially harmful organisms at bay. Sources of probiotics include cultured milk products such as yogurt and buttermilk.
How do children benefit from probiotics?
In the womb, a baby's gastrointestinal tract does not contain bacteria - good or otherwise.
Babies obtain their community of bacteria from a number of sources, including the mother's vaginal tract (through delivery), the mother's skin and breast feeding.
Establishing the right balance of bacteria can be challenged in many ways. The community of bacteria may not be formed properly in the first instance; this can occur if a child is delivered via caesarean section or has not been breast fed.
Alternatively, imbalances in bacteria can result from antibiotic use or, as the child gets older, through dietary choices.
Failure to establish a healthy balance of bacteria can result in a poorly established immune system and possibly leave babies and children open to increased infections, diarrhoeal illness and allergies.
Probiotic supplementation may assist children in creating healthy gut bacteria. Alternatively it may bring existing gut bacteria back into balance. Probiotics may also help to support a child's immune system and to assist in fighting infections.
Probiotics and childhood infections
Probiotic supplementation has been shown to prevent viral infections including those which cause respiratory tract infections and diarrhoea.
In particular, the probiotic strain Lactobacillus rhamnonsus GG has been known to decrease the duration of diarrhoea in several trials.
A preliminary clinical trial has demonstrated that probiotics may also be able to reduce the risk of developing ear infections.
Probiotics for child allergies
These days many children seem to suffer from allergic tendencies such as eczema or food allergies, and research has shown that allergies are now considered the most common chronic disease in childhood.
Several trials have shown a benefit in preventing atopic eczema and dermatitis in children by giving probiotics, in particular Lactobacillus rhamnonsus GG and Lactobacillus reuteri, to pregnant and lactating mothers as well as in formula for bottle fed infants.
Prevention is better than cure
Clinical trials have shown that providing probiotics to women when they are pregnant and /or lactating is the most effective defence against allergies.
Studies have also shown that giving probiotics to children preventatively can reduce the incidence of respiratory tract infections and diarrhoea.
Top 5 ways that probiotics can help children
1. Reduce duration of diarrhoeal infections
2. Reduce the incidence and duration of respiratory tract infections
3. Reduce number of days sick from daycare
4. Useful in prevention of atopic allergies such as eczema and hayfever
5. May reduce incidence of ear infections