Probiotics for babies and children: everything you need to know

by Burgie Ireland
Probiotics for babies and children
Reading Time: 3 minutes

We all want healthy babies who grow up to be healthy children and adults. As a parent, you want to know how best to do this. While genetics, environment and diet play an important role, so too does gut health. This means nurturing the microbiome – or good gut bacteria.

While some microorganisms are harmful to our health, many more are incredibly helpful. For example, good bacteria lines the gut and makes it difficult for disease-causing microbes to invade the body. They do this by creating a unique microbial ecosystem. What’s more, they connect with the brain, creating an important link to ensure the healthy development of the body. Research has shown that a healthy gut can help to prevent chronic health issues such as type 2 diabetes in later life.

What is the microbiome?

Microbiomes assist with digestion. They break down food, absorb nutrients, boost immunity and help to prevent allergies like asthma.

Essentially, the microbiome comes from what we eat. Think of your baby’s first feeds during those early days after birth. Colostrum or ‘first milk’ is a highly concentrated super-breastmilk designed to nourish, protect and kick-start your baby’s digestive system. Ultimately, it’s your baby’s first step towards having a healthy body.

We know today that breast milk contains essential ingredients that help to establish healthy gut microbiota. These mostly come from sugar molecules called oligosaccharides that feed microbes like Bifidobacterium. These coat the gut lining, making it difficult for disease-causing microbes to attack – especially during the first six months of your baby’s life when the immune system is developing.

Colonising your baby’s skin with the microbiome begins at birth – first through the birth canal, then when baby is held skin-to-skin, and breastfeeding. According to Dr Nicholas Embleton, a neonatologist at Newcastle University UK, by the age of two or three, a child’s gut microbiome should be similar to that of an adult.

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What do probiotics do?  

Probiotics look after ‘good’ bacteria in the gut.  When harmful bacteria make your baby sick, short-term antibiotics may be necessary to kill harmful bacteria. These also destroy good bacteria – especially in the gut. Pro-biotics help to replenish the good bacteria.

Nurturing the microbiome:

The way babies are born and fed, our fastidiousness with cleanliness (especially since Covid) and careless overuse of antibiotics are some reasons why society struggles with gut health today. About the time when babies start to crawl is when their immune system should be strong enough to allow a toddler to experiment by ‘tasting’ their environment. After six months, there’s no need to sterilise everything that goes into your baby’s mouth – it should be well washed with hot soapy water. Dishwashers are sterilisers. They can be a disadvantage in that they kill everyday bacteria that help the body to develop antibodies.

When are pro-biotics helpful?

Babies who are born by c-section, formula fed and nursed in ICU can miss out their ‘seeding’ of the microbiome, and may need pro-biotics when solids are introduced. If your baby is in ICU, ask the nursing sister to help you and your partner with skin-to-skin Kangaroo care so that your baby can benefit from skin-to-skin nursing – when your baby is well enough to do this.

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Nurturing your baby’s microbiome:

  • This starts during pregnancy. Women are advised to minimise a diet of processed and fast foods, and to eat prebiotic foods such as avocado pear, whole grains, oats, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, soybeans, and artichokes.
  • Tooth and gum health is important because the mouth is the first source of gut infections.
  • The birth canal needs to be free of thrush or bacterial vaginitis.
  • Women are encouraged to have a natural, vaginal birth. Babies should be placed skin-to-skin on the mother’s chest as soon after birth as possible.
  • When a c-section is unavoidable, when there are no medical problems, baby can be placed on mother’s chest.
  • Breastfeeding is encouraged for at least 6 months. One year (or longer) if possible.
  • New research has shown that delaying the baby’s first bath allows the vernix to nurture the microbiome.
  • When solids are introduced, these can begin with natural raw fruit (e.g., mashed banana) or vegetables (avocado pear).

When will your baby/child need probiotics?   

  • When a c-section is unavoidable.
  • When breastfeeding is not possible.
  • When antibiotics are necessary.
  • When babies/toddlers start day-care/nursery school for the first time.

For the best advice ask a trained, registered dietician who can recommend a healthy-gut diet specific to your needs and eating habits. Speak to your pharmacist about probiotics for your baby/child.

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