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If you eat a varied diet, and your children are growing normally and don’t seem to have any digestive issues, then you probably don’t need a probiotic supplement, says Gregg Kobak, MD, pediatric gastroenterologist and probiotics expert at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Probiotics, or beneficial gut bacteria, already exist in some of the food we eat, such as yogurt. The more varied your fresh food intake, the more diverse the bacteria in your gut. Dr. Kobak says that there’s still a lot we don’t know about this gut bacteria, called the microbiome. But we do know that, in general, a more diverse microbiome means a healthier digestive tract.
“We are just starting to appreciate the importance our microbiome plays in human health and diseases ranging from digestive problems, heart disease, autoimmune disease and even obesity,” Dr. Kobak says.
For kids who experience GI distress, taking probiotics in conjunction with other medications might help. Dr. Kobak has seen certain probiotics improve serious cases of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea where other treatments weren’t working on their own. They can also help temper the effects of antibiotics, and might help reduce the amount of medication your child is taking.
But, Dr. Kobak says, probiotics usually don’t solve a serious digestive problem on their own, so your child will probably still have to take other medicine.
Given the complexity of probiotics, Dr. Kobak recommends parents keep these three things in mind if they are considering giving probiotics to their children:
Each of the thousands of bacteria strains in the digestive tract do a different job, so it’s important to target a specific illness with the right probiotic species. Taking a generic probiotic might not improve your digestive symptoms.
A probiotics expert will know which probiotic to recommend based on your child’s symptoms. If you want your physician to consider probiotics for your child, ask them to help you identify a precise probiotic treatment plan.
As is the case with vitamins and other supplements, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate probiotics. A study published in the March 2016 medical journal Pediatric Research showed that only one in 16 over-the-counter probiotics pills perfectly matched what the product advertised.
In some cases, the strain of bacteria didn’t match that listed on the product; in other cases, the amount of bacteria in the dose didn’t match. A physician will have a good idea of which products most accurately reflect what’s actually in the pill.