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From the moment that you find out you're going to have a baby, a million concerns start to run through your mind--and first among these worries is likely how to protect your child's health and set them up for a lifetime of wellness. You plan to feed your child a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; you think about how to encourage them to be active and to teach them to enjoy stretching their muscles.
Of course, a healthy diet and an active lifestyle are important for even small children, but the truth is that much of your child's whole body well-being--from childhood into adulthood--rests on one key thing: the health and balance of their gut microbiome. In turn, while your child's health can be bolstered in many ways, adding a daily probiotic supplement for kids to your little one's routine can unlock a whole host of health benefits, from a better-functioning digestive tract to a stronger immune system.
Why Your Child's Gut Health is So Important
Gut health is key for supporting overall health at all ages, but the early years of life are especially important for developing a healthy and balanced gut microbiome--the immense and diverse population of microorganisms that reside in the digestive tract. Popular culture tends to paint all bacteria as something to keep your children away from, but in actuality good bacteria strains are vitally important for your child's health.
Your child's gut microbiome begins to develop in the womb, is further populated during birth and through breastfeeding, and undergoes critical stages of development in infancy and early childhood. The good bacteria that call your child's digestive tract home are critically important in helping to digest food and absorb vitamins, but their role goes beyond the digestive tract; a balanced gut microbiome can boost your child's immune system and improve function of a number of related bodily processes.
The Causes and Effects of an Unbalanced Gut Microbiome in Your Child
As important as a balanced gut microbiome is for your child's health, many things can disrupt the balance in their digestive tract. Antibiotic use, for example, is one of the most common causes of an out-of-balance microbiome. As important as antibiotics are for preventing serious infections by killing off bad strains of bacteria, they operate indiscriminately; important beneficial bacteria is targeted alongside the detrimental strains.
The use of antibacterial products can have a similar effect, killing good bacteria along with bad. Indeed, a growing number of researchers support the "hygiene hypothesis." This theory posits that environmental and lifestyle changes that affect children in developed countries such as improved sanitation, reduced exposure to farm animals and increased C-section rates has led to children not being exposed to enough of the right types of good bacteria in their early years--with potentially significant health consequences.
So what can the effects be if your child's gut microbiome is unbalanced? Some symptoms are relatively minor yet disruptive, including digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea. However, several serious and life-long conditions that commonly onset during childhood such as asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases and Type 1 diabetes have been linked to an unbalanced gut microbiome and a lack of exposure to adequate sources of good bacteria in childhood.
What Can a Kids' Probiotic Supplement Do for Your Child?
By supporting the health of your child's gut microbiome, a probiotic supplement has the potential to boost the health of their entire body--but several key benefits have been shown over and over again in multiple scientific studies.
From constipation to diarrhea, taking a daily probiotic supplement may help improve your child's digestive tract function. A review conducted by American Family Physician found that probiotics can help reduce the duration of gastroenteritis-caused diarrhea, and a daily probiotic supplement may even be effective at treating more serious digestive tract disorders in children such as inflammatory bowel disease. A study published in Pediatrics also suggests that probiotics may be able to prevent diarrhea associated with antibiotic use.
The same Pediatrics study also found evidence that early probiotic use may be able to prevent infants from developing necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious condition that causes the death of intestinal tissue. Likewise, for the youngest children, probiotics can be incredibly effective at reducing the occurrence of colic, acid reflux and constipation. A 2013 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that infants under four months suffering from colic showed signs of improvement when given a probiotic supplement. After being given a probiotic containing the Lactobacillus reuteri strain, infants in the study had fewer crying episodes, less constipation and less spitting up than the control group.
What's more, the proven benefits of probiotic supplements for children go beyond the digestive tract. A comprehensive review of research on the subject undertaken in 2015 discovered that probiotic supplements were markedly more effective than placebo in lowering the occurrence and length of upper respiratory tract infections in adolescent study participants. Indeed, researchers found that children who took a daily probiotic had lower rates of school absences and antibiotic use than their counterparts who didn't take a probiotic supplement.
Children who have a family history of eczema, asthma or allergic rhinitis may also benefit from probiotic supplementation. One study found that children who were given the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG for their first six months of life saw 50 percent fewer cases of eczema than children who were given a placebo. This effect seems to be particularly pronounced for children whose eczema flare-ups are caused by a milk allergy.
Of course, it's important to remember that a daily probiotic supplement is only part of the equation when it comes to supporting your child's gut health. When possible, breastfeeding in infancy can provide key sources of naturally-occurring probiotics, and a healthy diet filled with complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber can help feed the good bacteria already in residence in your child's digestive tract. Staying away from antibacterial products and unnecessary antibiotics can also help protect their microbiome's delicate balance. However, adding in a probiotic supplement for kids to your child's daily routine is one of the most effective ways--and certainly the easiest!--to promote a healthy gut microbiome and lay the foundation for a lifetime of good health.
Dan W. Thomas, Frank R. Greer, Committee on Nutrition; Section on Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition Pediatrics Dec 2010, 126 (6) 1217-1231; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-2548
Hao Q, Dong BR, Wu T. Probiotics for preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2015, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD006895. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006895.pub3.
J Pediatr (Rio J). 2011;87(4):292-300: Gastrointestinal flora, intestinal microbiota, oligosaccharide, prebiotic, probiotic.