Does Your Child Need Probiotics?

Children drinking milk at the kitchen table

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Many adults supplement their diets with probiotics—to increase their good bacteria, help manage symptoms of skin conditions like eczema, or ward off common viral infections. It's no wonder many parents toy with the idea of giving their children probiotic supplements, too.

"Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can be welcome additions to the microbiome that lives in our large and small intestine," says Paul A. Rufo, MD, MMSc, Verywell Family medical review board member and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

We have known for some time that there are enormous numbers of bacteria in our intestines. "Although we initially thought that these bacteria were simply along for the ride, recent data have demonstrated that the bacteria that live in our gut play a critical role in helping with digestion, absorption, and maintenance of a healthy immune system," says Dr. Rufo.

This begs the question—should our little ones be supplementing with probiotics too? "Probiotics are known to help improve our health in many different ways, including our mental health—[up to 90%] of serotonin production comes from the gut," says Yaffi Lvova, RDN, an experienced registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in prenatal and pediatric nutrition. Let's take a closer look at what the research says.

What the Research Says

While there may be anecdotal evidence supporting giving children probiotics, "there is no consistent data demonstrating that children need to take probiotic supplements to remain healthy," says Dr. Rufo.

Also, the health benefits may be specific to individual probiotic strains, meaning a strain that helps one condition may be useless against another. (A few of the probiotic strains that you might see listed on product labels include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces.)

The lack of clear research means there’s no definitive answer as to whether you should supplement your child's diet with probiotics.

Paul A. Rufo, MD, MMSc

There is no consistent data demonstrating that children need to take probiotic supplements to remain healthy.

— Paul A. Rufo, MD, MMSc

However, Dr. Rufo says probiotic supplementation may be useful for dual bacterial or viral infections or antibiotic therapy, and there is some research to back this up.

A review published in American Family Physician found that probiotics might help treat inflammatory bowel disease. They may also reduce the duration of diarrhea caused by gastroenteritis. When given to pregnant and breastfeeding parents, probiotics may reduce the risk of their babies developing eczema and allergies.

Another research review concluded that probiotics were better than the placebo in reducing the incidence and duration of upper respiratory tract infections in study participants, including children. The use of probiotics also appeared to reduce antibiotic use and school absence due to colds.

In a meta-analysis including studies of 4,755 infants, probiotic supplementation, in particular those containing multiple strains of bacteria, prevented atopic dermatitis (eczema). However, no beneficial effects were observed relating to asthma, wheezing, or rhinoconjunctivitis (congestion and sneezing).

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that giving infants probiotics in the first three months of life may help prevent colic, constipation, and acid reflux.

Should Your Child Take a Probiotic?

Unless your child's pediatrician recommends that they take a probiotic, they probably don't need to.

"Most children will be exposed to sufficient healthy bacteria from their food or environment," says Dr. Rufo. "However, there are instances in which probiotic supplementation may be useful, such as when a child has ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease."

Gut-Friendly Alternatives

There are other ways to help develop a healthy microbiome besides probiotic supplementation. "As a child begins to eat, including fermented foods in their regular rotation will help keep the gut healthy without the need of a supplement," says Lvova.

The bacteria that occur naturally in foods like buttermilk, kefir (a fermented milk drink), sauerkraut, and kimchi can help repopulate and maintain a healthy microbiome. Probiotics are also added to some foods like yogurt—but check the label to make sure it has “live and active cultures.”

Lvova adds that health is a multifactorial concept. "Gentle, attached parenting will support the child in a way that minimizes stress, and offering a variety of foods with no obligation to eat a certain amount will help kids to choose the variety of foods that will support the gut."

A Word From Verywell

The bottom line? While giving your child probiotics is unlikely to cause harm, there has been no consistent data in support of it.

If you decide to give your child probiotics, remember that dietary supplements aren't regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), so there are no official recommendations for doses or the length of time to take them. Plus, you may not always get what is advertised. Your best bet is to ask your pediatrician to recommend a particular brand. Check the expiration date before using, and review storage requirements so you know whether the product needs refrigeration.

Probiotics for kids are available in liquid, powder, gummy, and chewable forms, and come in a range of child-friendly flavors.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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