Navigating the gut health of your kids is a tricky task, so I wrote a post for Kidspot to help mums and families set the record straight.

Gut health is all the rage and probiotic supplements are promoted to kids to stay healthy and ward off tummy trouble. But are they safe – and do they really make a difference?

What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live ‘friendly’ bacteria found naturally in the body, as well as in select foods and supplements. Collectively dubbed the microbiome, the human gut is where the majority of these bacteria reside. These colony of microorganisms play an essential role in digestion, extracting nutrients from food, and support the immune system to help fight off any nasty bugs.

Food vs supplements
Kids are likely to get most of their probiotic intake from yoghurt, which also contains other valuable nutrients, including bone-strengthening calcium and hunger-busting protein.

Fermented and aged foods like kefir (milk drink), miso, sauerkraut and kimchi (fermented vegetables), and some cheeses also contain different types of probiotic strains. Whilst these foods may not be child-friendly, repetitive exposure makes children more willing to eat unfamiliar foods over time.

Then there are prebiotics – a non-digestible type of dietary fibre that feeds the beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics are found in specific types of high fibre plant-based foods such as wholegrains (couscous, barley, oats), legumes (baked beans, chickpeas) and vegetables (onions, green peas, sweetcorn, artichoke) and some fruits (watermelon, bananas, custard apples). Ensuring a balanced diet rich in both probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods will encourage healthy and diverse bacteria growth, where the good outnumber the bad.

Probiotic supplements, which are available in capsules, tablets, powders and liquid extracts are intended to mimic these “good” bacteria in order to “rebalance” the gut.

There are a number of studies supporting the use of probiotics in adults, such as boosting the immune system and reducing symptoms of IBS, including bloating and constipation, however the evidence on whether probiotics are actually effective for a range of infant conditions is a mixed bag and more research is needed.

For example, certain strains have been found useful in preventing diarrhea among children who have been prescribed antibiotics, so giving your child probiotics following a course of antibiotics may be helpful. Other studies suggest taking probiotics may help the immune system and prevent certain allergies, eczema or asthma. On the other hand, some researchers would argue that probiotics may simply be passed as normal waste because a child’s microbiome isn’t fully developed.

The takeaway
Generally speaking, in most healthy children, probiotics are harmless. However, it’s important to bear in mind that probiotic supplementation (as the name implies) should supplement, rather than replace, conventional treatments. As scientists are yet to determine the long-term effects of probiotics on children, and whether probiotics are beneficial for kids, research is yet to establish which particular strains might be most effective, for which conditions, in what doses, in order to reap the most benefit. As always, check with your doctor or paediatrician before giving probiotic supplements to your child.

This article was originally published in Kidspot and republished with their permission.

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