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Kids and probiotics: Should parents believe the hype?

The families I care for as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin all have one thing in common — they are trying to get or stay healthy. With increased talk on social media about the benefits of probiotics, I’m hearing from more and more families who wonder if probiotic supplements can help kids stay healthy by helping them grow “good” bacteria in their guts, and preventing the “bad” bacteria from taking hold.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re considering giving kids probiotic supplements.

Probiotics won’t harm most kids

Probiotics, which contain various types of live bacteria, won’t cause harm in most healthy kids. However, they should not be given to kids who are immunocompromised or who have serious illnesses. Check with your doctor before starting probiotics.

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Lack of data

There’s a lack of data to show the benefit of probiotics, and researchers aren’t entirely sure how they work. So while they won’t harm, they may not do much good, either — especially when your child is well.

May ease tummy troubles

Probiotics have been shown to ease diarrhea brought on by viral gastroenteritis (i.e. the “stomach bug”), by reducing how long it lasts. They can also be helpful in preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea in healthy children, so giving your child probiotics following a course of antibiotics may be helpful.

Probiotics vs. prebiotics

While there’s not much research showing the benefit of probiotic supplements for infants, prebiotics are a common ingredient in infant formula. Prebiotics are naturally found in human milk and encourage the growth of healthy bacteria. By adding them to formula, manufacturers hope to make formula closer to breastmilk. Prebiotics may offer some protection against allergic disease and eczema, but the verdict is still out.

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Probiotics are supplements, not medication

For this reason, they are not regulated or tested by the Food and Drug Administration. Different types of probiotics have different ingredients, and there’s no data on how to get the right probiotic for the right patient.

To sum up, in most healthy people, probiotics are harmless. Since the potential benefits of probiotics only last as long as you take them, I recommend yogurt as a natural, nutritious source of the “good” bacteria offered by probiotics, along with calcium and protein. For added nutritional bonus, choose yogurt that has live active cultures, little to no added sugar, and no artificial sweeteners.