We have all heard that probiotics may be beneficial to your digestive health, but what you may not know is that probiotics can also be beneficial to your baby. Your baby needs beneficial bacteria to develop a healthy immune system. Taking probiotics while breastfeeding has the potential to improve the health of your baby and prevent some childhood diseases.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are types of bacteria that are similar to those normally present in our intestines (normal flora). Many types of bacteria are harmful to your health and cause infections. However, normal flora are beneficial bacteria that help your body produce some vitamins, digest food, and eliminate other bacteria that can cause disease. Imbalances in the ratio of good bacteria to harmful bacteria in your intestines may lead to some health problems or diseases. Supplementing with probiotics can help restore the proper balance to your digestive system. The use of probiotics is especially important if you have recently taken antibiotics because these medications eliminate bacteria, including your normal flora. This causes an imbalance in the bacteria in your intestines and can lead to infections. While probiotics have been shown to be relatively safe, they can rarely cause dangerous infections in people with weakened immune systems, serious illnesses, certain medical conditions, or those who have recently had surgery. They may also be dangerous to babies who have illnesses or health problems. You can read more about probiotics here.
Does my baby have normal flora?
Your baby is born without any bacteria in his or her intestines. Bacteria will start to populate in your baby’s digestive system after birth. The types of bacteria that reside in your baby’s intestines are dependent on his or her diet, environment, and your own normal flora. Having an imbalance of beneficial bacteria during pregnancy can increase the risk that your baby will have allergic conditions after birth. An imbalance in your baby’s normal flora may contribute to colic and plays a role in diseases that occur in preterm babies, including blood infections and a condition that causes damage to the intestines.
How can the use of probiotics during breastfeeding benefit my baby?
One of the primary sources of beneficial bacteria for your baby’s intestines comes from breast milk. It contains two types of bacteria that are commonly found in probiotics, Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. A study found that women who took antibiotics during pregnancy or breastfeeding had lower amounts of these beneficial bacteria in breast milk. This means that the use of antibiotics during these important time periods may deprive your baby of normal flora necessary for proper immune system development and lead to health problems in your baby. In fact, a study showed that babies whose moms used antibiotics during pregnancy had a higher risk of childhood asthma and complications of asthma.
The benefits of probiotic use in pregnancy and breastfeeding for preventing allergic conditions in babies has been shown in several studies. One study showed that in moms who already had allergic conditions, taking probiotics during pregnancy and breastfeeding lowered the risk that their babies would develop eczema during the first 2 years of life. The World Allergy Organization (WAO) released guidelines in 2015 about the use of probiotics in pregnancy and breastfeeding to prevent allergic conditions in babies. You can read more about the WAO recommendations here.
In addition to the potential benefits in preventing allergic conditions, probiotics may help prevent colic in newborns. Babies with colic have been shown to have fewer beneficial bacteria (Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria) in their intestines. Studies have found that giving breastfed babies probiotics can alleviate or prevent colic. However, a few reports have indicated that giving probiotic supplements to babies caused blood infections.
Probiotics from breast milk may also improve the frequency and volume of your baby’s stools and reduce the likelihood that your baby will develop infections.
Breast milk provides the safest source of probiotics for your baby. Moms who take antibiotics during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or moms who are interested in maintaining a healthy balance of normal flora, should ask their doctor about supplementing with probiotics. Although it is considered unlikely that probiotics are transferred to your baby by breast milk, consuming probiotics can reestablish a healthy balance of normal flora to your intestines, which may restore Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria to your breast milk.
What should I do if I want to take probiotics while breastfeeding?
As with all supplements and medications, you should always ask your doctor before using any probiotics during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Probiotic supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Therefore, the safety of these products during pregnancy and breastfeeding has not been extensively studied.